Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Growing and using edible flowers

Edible flowers, a selection.                              Pic: Kerstin Rodgers

Using edible flowers in your recipes will give your dishes an instant wow factor. A simple green salad or side dish of vegetables becomes visually spectacular with a simple floral garnish, or sprinkling of petals over the top. 

Edible flowers can be used for so much more than garnishing, though, and added creatively can bring nuances of flavour - giving a dish a spicy kick, or sweet edge, or a hint of mint, for example. Some flowers are also reputed to aid digestion.

Many of the most delicious edible flowers are easily grown and commonly found in our gardens. But you do need to apply some common-sense to the process of choosing and using flowers in your food and drinks. 

In general, apply the same caution to identifying and eating flowers as you would to picking mushrooms. Not all flowers are edible. Most of the ones which aren't will either taste bitter or be indigestibly fibrous, rather than harmful. However, a smallish number of flowers are actively toxic and should be avoided (we've listed the most common ones here).

1. Don’t try to eat any flower unless you’re 100% certain what it is.

2. Don’t assume that if the leaves, or roots, are edible then the flowers will be too. For example, tomato fruits and potato tubers may be good to eat, but the flowers are poisonous. At least with tomatoes and potatoes there is a big clue in that they are both members of the deadly nightshade family Solanum which can lay some claim to be the botanical equivalent of the Borgias.

3. Don’t assume that just because close relatives are edible, then the rest of the family will be too. In the umbellifer family, it's fine to eat all parts of fennel or dill plants - stalks, leaves, flowers and seeds. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestrisand carrot (Daucus carota) flowers, members of the same family are also considered edible, but you need to be very cautious because these plants bear more than a passing resemblance to fool's parsley (Aethusa cynapium) and hemlock (Conium maculatum), which are not only inedible, but extremely poisonous. It was hemlock that was used to finish off the Greek philosopher Socrates.

4. Know the provenance of any flowers you plan to eat. Once you've positively identified your flower, you also need to take into consideration where it has grown and how it's been treated. In practice, if you pick flowers from your garden or allotment, you will know exactly how they have been raised. But beware of the following:
  • Don’t use flowers picked by the roadside - they may well be contaminated with exhaust fumes or animal droppings.
  • Don't use flowers bought from florists unless they can guarantee that they have been organically raised. They may well be sprayed with preservative or pesticide.
5. Be cautious about eating flowers if you suffer from hay fever. Flowers inevitably contain pollen, which is of course an irritant at best, or an allergen, for hay fever sufferers. If you think this might apply to you, approach edible flowers like a food tester: a little at a time.

The best time to pick flowers for eating is late morning - after the dew has dried off and before the sun gets a chance to start drying flowers out.

Choose flowers that are just approaching full bloom. Anything in full flower is in reality past its best in terms of flavour.

Cut flowers cleanly. Don’t cut too close to the flowerhead. You want to be able to hold the flower by the stem so that you handle the petals as little as possible.

If you're not preparing the flowers for a dish immediately, put in a vase of water as for cut flowers and store in the fridge if possible.

Pick over the blooms very carefully for insects - earwigs, ladybirds, aphids, and even bees. Turn the flower upside-down and shake gently. Handle the flowers as little as possible - if you think the petals need washing, do so with as light a touch as you can manage.

For any flower larger than, say, a viola, you will want to remove the stamens - the stalks, often in the middle of the flower which bear the pollen - and the calyx and sepals - the usually green parts at the back of the flower. For smaller flowers, don’t do this: it's too finicky and you are more likely to bruise your petals.

Whole flowers in dishes look stunning, but are there really for decoration. Only tiny flowers such as herb flowers or violas can really be eaten whole. Anything bigger than a viola, use just the petals.

When using flowers as a topping or garnish, serve them as soon as possible after preparation so that they don’t get a chance to wilt or dry out.

We've named just a few edible flowers in this article. See our page on edible and poisonous flowers for a more comprehensive listing.

Hibiscus salt

  • 1 cup dried hibiscus flowers
  • Half a cup coarse sea salt

(The American by-volume measurements are useful here as you simply need twice as much dried hibiscus flower as you do salt. If you have no US-style measuring cups, just use 2 parts hibiscus to each one part salt. The quantities above approximate to 25g dried hibiscus flowers and 120g sea salt.)

Grind in a blender or spice grinder. Sieve the mixture if you’d like a finer texture.

Lavender vodka

Take a bottle of plain vodka and decant about a wineglass-worth into another container. (This vodka isn't needn't for the recipe, so you'll have to think of something else to do with it.)

For a 1l bottle of vodka, take half a cup, or a handful, or 10g of  lavender flowers (the precision of the measurements isn't paramount), picked over for mites and insects. Add the lavender to the vodka bottle, screw the top back on, and shake well to disperse the lavender through the vodka.

Keep in the fridge for at about three days, then strain the liquid into another jar, then strain again back into the vodka bottle - you can use a clean, unused J-cloth to catch all the lavender bits. (This is the one and only culinary tip I've ever picked up from Bridget Jones' Diary.)

The lavender vodka is now ready to use.

Lavender sugar
Sterilise a jar - a hot dishwasher cycle will do the trick - and let it dry completely. Weigh the jar, then fill about three quarters full with caster sugar. Weigh again and work out how much sugar you have.

For every 500g caster sugar, take a tablespoon of lavender flowers, picked free of stalks and checked for mites and insects. Add the flowers to the sugar, secure the lid and shake well. Leave the jar somewhere cool and give it a quick shake every couple of days for a week after which the sugar will be ready.

Lavender sugar can be used to make biscuits, cakes, icings, creams and mousses.

Crystallised petals
  • Flowers from roses, pansies, hollyhocks, primroses, or pinks
  • A shallow bowl of caster sugar
  • 1 egg white
Collect your flowers, pick over for insects and mites, and separate out the petals.
Lightly whisk the egg white until it’s foamy - this will disperse any globular bits and ensure an even texture. Take a clean paintbrush and paint each petal with the egg white, both back and front.
Then dredge, or sprinkle with caster sugar – or ‘wipe’ the petal across the sugar. 
Lay the petals on greaseproof paper on a rack and dry out in the airing cupboard or a similar warm place for 24 hours – then use as soon as possible. The crystallised petals will keep in an airtight container for about a week.

Scrambled eggs with chive flowers
2 eggs
1 tbsp single or double cream
Knob of butter
2-3 chive flowerheads, picked over and clean, and separated into petals

Break the eggs into a bowl and beat with a fork or whisk until well amalgamated. Fold in the cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the butter to a small pan, preferably non-stick and heat very gently until the butter has just melted. Pour in the egg mix, and stir very gently until the mixture begins to form curds. Keep stirring until the eggs are just scrambled, then sprinkle over the chive flowers, stir very briefly to mix and serve.

Other edible flower recipes:
What's Cooking America: http://whatscookingamerica.net/EdibleFlowers/EdibleFlowersMain.htm a listiing with recipe links rather than recipes themselves, but a great resource nonetheless.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Blooming marvellous - the Secret Garden in summer

The Secret Garden has burst into fruit and flower in the heatwave – after a slow start to the season everything is coming out at once.

Our fennel, above, is now hitting 6ft high with its umbrella-like flowers reaching for the sun. These flowers, like the fronds and stems, are edible and have the same anise flavour as the rest of the plant. They're beautiful in salads and as a garnish for vegetables, plus the pollen makes an intensely aromatic backdrop to the plate. We’ll be using fennel in our Secret Garden Club Edible Flowers afternoon this Sunday (book here for tickets, there are just a few places left).

Blackfly are always attracted to globe artichokes, although the problem is often very local with one plant affected and another quite free of them (see above). We’ve given our blackfly-infested plant on the left a good shower in washing-up water to get rid of them, using environmentally friendly soap, of course. A garlic infusion sprayed on the plants every few days as they mature can also act as a good preventative measure.

We only planted the rhubarb earlier this year, but it has already established well and this winter we’ll try forcing some of the stems for an early rhubarb treat in February or March. We chose a partially shaded site for the rhubarb, rather than placing it in full sun: it will tolerate some shade quite well.

Blackberries are forming after a brief and glorious display of blossom – we’ve never consciously planted blackberries, but they are persistent and vigorous intruders, and a welcome addition to the garden, so long as we keep them firmly in check.
One of the advantages of mixing edible plants with ornamentals as we do in the Secret Garden is some predators get confused. Grown in rows or block, these cavolo nero plants would be an easy target for pigeons which loves to eat the leaves and for cabbage white butterflies looking for brassicas to lay their eggs on. The pigeons haven’t found our cavolo nero yet, although we’ll continue to keep a sharp eye out for caterpillars.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Book review: my cool allotment. by Lia Leendertz

Guardian and Telegraph writer Lia Leendertz has written a brilliant book for gardeners both armchair and real, which would also appeal to travellers and cooks: a pilgrimage through allotments, ferreting out stories and characters.
Once someone gets an allotment, which in London, can take years on a waiting list, they become understandably territorial. I've noticed that with my allotmenteer friends, that bitching is no longer about outfits and boyfriends but ugly fences and unacceptable insect eradication methods. Some seem quite scarred by their allotment wars but undoubtedly it is a lovely way to garden and make friends. I'm lucky enough to have my own garden but it can be lonely. Allotmenteering has its own culture and community.
Lia writes of the history of allotments, how common land, widely available, which the poor depended upon for fuel and food, was given to rich landowners under the Enclosures Acts of the 1800s. Allotments were meagre but welcome compensation for free common land. She visits the oldest allotments in the UK and the oldest gardener still working on them.
The book is a series of interviews with allotment holders some of whom, reflecting our multi-cultural society, come from Tokyo, Cyprus, Thailand and Jamaica. The stuff they grow reflects their background and the food they cook.
Riverford cottage gardener Mark Diacono is the photographer for this book, capturing the diverse, often grizzled, faces of the characters, for instance the mad-haired permaculture guru Mike Feingold, looking like Einstein crossed with Wurzel Gummidge.
We meet the glamorous titian coiffed Alys Fowler in her plot, where she goes every afternoon, lights a fire and makes tea. She grows with a view to fermenting, sauerkraut and kimchi. Lia writes of a dahlia fetishist in Birmingham and a floating garden near Amiens. I was ignorant of forest gardening and the book visits Martin Crawford's woodland allotment. There is a fascinating chapter on a plot that concentrates on growing plants for dyes such as madder and woad. Lia also explores community projects, an edible bus stop,a school allotment where gardening is part of the curriculum, an edible office garden and a skip garden.
My only, albeit minor, reservation about the book is the design. It is part of a series, perhaps they all have the same look. It would have been helpful to have each allotment holder clearly identified and where their allotment is located. The typeface is hard to read and the background colour of the paper is unattractive.  I've learnt as a blogger, when at first you experiment with black backgrounds and the like, keep it simple! You want readability so stick to white or pale backgrounds and black type. The publishers should also consider that people tend to get interested in gardening over the age of 35, and small tight fonts are not easy for older people to read.
It's frustrating because this fascinating book deserves to be big and plush with lots of room.

Buy my cool allotment here.