Chow Town

Edible flowers offer a bouquet of flavors

Updated: 2013-06-03T01:04:35Z

By Tyler Fox

Flowers are one of the truly universal objects of beauty found in all cultures.

They are given as gifts, planted or placed as decoration and used in medicinal or religious rituals. A symbol of their significance is their prominent role in many of the most sacred of human proceedings, such as marriage or the passing on of loved ones.

The color, type, fragrance and visual qualities make for a nearly endless array of uses. But one crucial aspect of flowers is often overlooked — they’re delicious.

Flowers are much more than expensive color wheels of pretty petals wrapped and bundled in a supermarket. They play a crucial role in our ecosystem as a naturally occurring component of the reproductive process in many plants, from the rose or sunflower to fruits and vegetables like oranges and artichokes.

The idea of the flower as food has been around for centuries and spans the globe in its scope of applications. Whether it’s the chamomile and lavender flavors filling your teacup or the pungent qualities of the dried lily bud long featured in Chinese medicine, people have always found ways to take flowers beyond the realm of mere visual decor.

Some people may be surprised to learn that one of the world’s most expensive ingredients is actually the product of a flower. Saffron is the delicate stamen of the saffron crocus flower.

To get just a pound of saffron, you need upwards of 50,000 flowers, harvested by hand to preserve the delicate nature of the exotic red wisp. The price is obviously exorbitant, but people gladly pay it as there really is no substitute for the distinctly intoxicating blend of floral and earthy flavors even scant amounts can impart on a dish.

It is the unmistakable complexity of floral flavor and visual impact that is increasingly driving creative cooks to utilize the magic of flowers in cooking. A glance at the menus and dishes of leading chefs throughout the world will illustrate this point.

From main dishes featuring the delicate interplay of fried squash blossoms to the visual allure of pink candied rose petals garnishing a dessert course, there are nearly limitless ways to feature the flower. We eat with all of our senses and these gifts of nature have something special for each one.

A stroll through the market with a keen eye will yield many treasures in the form of edible flowers. Now that spring has at long last taken hold, plants everywhere are sporting the seasonal floral fashion.

As I walked up and down the farmers market aisles one recent morning, I was greeted by the lovely fragrance and colors of blooms on thyme, sage, basil, cilantro, chives, lavender and more, all popping buds and petals with abundance.

A good rule of thumb for safety is if you would normally eat the plant, you’re most likely golden to eat the flower. Any question on the edibility of certain flowers can be answered by a few quick visits with Google.

The flavor you’ll find in many flowers will echo characteristics of the plant they come from. For instance, the gorgeous purplish petals I found atop a bouquet of flowering chives had faint grassy notes of onion that followed the almost ethereal subtlety to their bite.

Each of the tiny individual flowers would burst and snap in the mouth like a vegetal Pop Rock of sorts. But the flavors and textures vary with each individual plant, so choose with your taste buds as well as your eyes.

Edible flowers are just one more dimension of seasonal taste to explore and discover. Don’t be afraid to branch out and try something new. I know I will always prefer a bouquet of flavors over a vase of wilting supermarket stems.

Vegan Roast Cauliflower With Asparagus and Flowering Chives

In this vegan dish, it is important that the cauliflower is seared but retains a somewhat toothsome texture as it is the featured component as meat might be. You could steam or cook the asparagus any way you like, but this high heat sear combines with the cauliflower to form a strong, smoky flavor. The cabbage adds body and texture to the dish. You won’t miss the meat!

Makes 2 large servings

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use

1 small head cauliflower, cut into large florets

1 teaspoon garam masala or curry powder

1 bundle of asparagus cut in 4-inch lengths

2 cloves garlic, finely sliced

1/2 napa cabbage, sliced in 1/2-inch strips

1 bundle flowering chives or garlic chives, sliced in 1-inch lengths, flowers reserved for garnish

½ teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika

Salt and Pepper to taste

In a pan over medium to medium-high heat add 1 tablespoon oil. When oil is hot, add cauliflower in even layer. Let it sit and sear undisturbed for 2 minutes, until it takes on nice bits of brown or charred spots. Add garam masala and stir cauliflower in pan to coat. Let cook another 1 to 2 minutes. Remove cauliflower; set aside.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and sear asparagus; the skin of the asparagus will begin to blister. Add sliced garlic, cabbage and paprika, stirring to let ingredients come together. Cook another 2 minutes until the cabbage is wilted and garlic is light brown and fragrant. Add chives to vegetables and remove from heat.

Plate by arranging asparagus, cabbage and chives in center of plate, adding cauliflower on top. Garnish with a healthy amount of the small chive flowers, salt and pepper to taste and a finish with a drizzle of your best olive oil.

Source: Tyler Fox

Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes 'nose-to-tail' cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.

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