Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A floral feast

Orange blossom waffles with rose petal ice cream. Photo: Kerstin Rodgers.

Using flowers in cooking and preparation of food is something of a lost art. Historically flowers were used extensively to make jellies, candies, desserts, vinegars, syrups and even wine. - think of mentions of cowslip wine in Beatrix Potter and Victorian pastoral novels.

We are happy to use the roots, stems and leaves of a wide range of plants but it's still a novelty to find edible blooms on your plate. Yet flowers can add a wow factor to many different types of food. Their visual impact more than makes up for what is often a subtle, elusive flavour. Using edible flowers can lift an ordinary dish and make it look spectacular for very little outlay.

If you do want to experiment with using flowers in your food you must source them carefully. Flowers which have been sprayed with preservatives or insecticides are no good for eating, which does tend to rule out your local florist. You can now buy little tubs of edible violas from some Waitrose outlets, but the best option in many ways is to grow them yourself. Many edible flowers are very easy to grow and as other parts of the plant can often be used in the kitchen as well, there will be nothing wasted.

If you have ever been foraging for mushrooms you will know the 'rules' for choosing and identifying edible fungi. Similar guidelines work well for finding flowers that are fit to eat as well:

  • Don’t try to eat any flower unless you’re 100% certain what it is. Not all flowers are edible and some are toxic. Many are neither poisonous nor palatable: they just don’t taste very nice or can be indigestibly fibrous.  
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.

Herb flowers
A cloud of duck-egg blue rosemary flowers in early spring.
Most herb flowers are edible and delicious. Once your herb plant is in the flower the leaves will be less flavoursome but there is still plenty you can do with the flowerheads. A simple potato salad can be transformed into something really special with the addition of fennel flowers (see MsMarmiteLover's recipe here) or chive flowers. Make a rosemary butter with the flowers from the plant rather than the spiky leaves, for example. Oregano flowers can scattered over a Greek salad in place of the dried or basil flowers used in pesto.

Fruit and vegetable flowers
We eat some vegetable flowers without really thinking about it, The globe artichoke is the flower of the Cynara scolymus plant in bud form and really just a giant thistle. The curds of broccoli and cauliflower are flower buds: if you grow broccoli and you don't pick the florets in time, you'll end up with a thicket of small yellow flowers - which are also edible. Indeed brassica flowers generally can be used to decorative effect in many dishes.
Courgette flower with the courgette growing just behind it.
The classic vegetable flowers, however, have to be squash or courgette, which are often stuffed and deep fried, or simply dipped in a tempura-style batter and fried on their own. If you grow courgettes, the most luxurious way to eat them is to pick a flower with a tiny courgette developing behind it and cook them both together. 

Edible ornamental flowers
From the versatile rose, whose petals can be used in jellies, syrups, crystallised to decorate cakes and desserts and whose essence can be distilled to make rosewater, to day lilies (Hemerocallis spp), whose buds are used in Chinese cooking, to tiny viola petals, many ornamental flowers can used to enhance the flavour of dishes and their visual appeal. 

We have a list of edible plants here on the Secret Garden Club website: it's not exhaustive and you should always check you are 100% certain of your flower identification before attempting to eat any plants, but we hope it gives you a good idea of the wide range and diversity of flowers which are both delicious to eat and stunning to look at.

Nasturtium flowers make a colourful, spicy addition to salads.

How to make your own rosewater

Making distilled rosewater is not that difficult and doesn't require specialist equipment. Once made, this beautifully fragrant liquid can be used to add scent and flavour to jellies, meringues, and fruit syrups. There are lots of rose bushes in the Secret Garden, all of which have petals suitable for eating, but for making rosewater we only want the most fragrant of blooms.
The best rose petals are those from a flower which is past the stage of being a bud and is opening out but is not quite in full bloom yet, and certainly not overblown.
How to make rosewater
There are a number of ways to make rosewater. You can simply steep rose petals in water, bring it to the boil and let them cool, before straining the mixture. You'll end up with a coloured liquid that might well be a bit sludgy and won't keep for very long.
Not much more effort is required to make distilled rosewater, which is clear and will keep for much longer.

You will need:
•Several handfuls scented rose petals, separated from the flowerhead and with all bits of stalk, leaf, etc, removed
•A large non-reactive pot with a curved lid
•A bowl which will fit into the pot
•A trivet, half-brick or heatproof weight to go underneath the bowl
•1-2 bags of ice

1. Put the trivet or brick in the middle of a large pot.
2. Pack the rose petals around it up to the level of the top of the trivet or weight. Pour cold water over the rose petals until they are just covered.
3. Set the bowl on the trivet or weight, put the lid on the pan and heat up to boiling point.
4. As soon as the water in the pan starts to boil, put a bag of ice on the inverted lid. Turn the heat down to a simmer.
5. As the steam rises from the rose-infused water, it hits the underside of the lid, which thanks to the bag of ice, will be cold. The steam will then condense and run down the curved lid in rivulets before dripping into the bowl you set inside the pan. After 20-30 minutes, you should have a bowlful full of clear rosewater, which can be lifted out, cooled and decanted into an airtight jar.
Once the water is boiling, it's advisable to check once or twice that your set-up is working and that the rose-infused water is indeed filling the bowl. Carefully lift the lid to check everything is in place, then leave for around 20 minutes before checking again. Once you have the desired amount of water in the bowl, turn off the heat and carefully lift the bowl out of the pan. You should have beautifully scented rosewater.
This rosewater can keep for up to a year, although it’s probably better to make fresh batches for cooking.

How to make hibiscus salt

Salt infused with dried hibiscus flowers adds a citrus note to the seasoning and an attractive pink finish to dishes.

  • 1 cup dried hibiscus flowers (available from health food shops, or online from 
  • 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.