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Edible Flowers in The Kitchen: Practical Tips & Guidelines 



The sprawling world of culinary flowers can be roughly divided in two; half are flowers that have been processed for use in prepared food and drink, eg. spices, and half are flowers freshly cut for use on the day. Because the former is the larger “half”, it’s an obvious place to start a discussion on edible flowers that may already be in your pantry. 

 

If you ask friends if they cook with flowers, most of them will immediately say ‘no’, and then a moment later they’ll say, wait a minute, do you mean like saffron? And the conversation will be off-and-running, to include hibiscus tea, lavender chocolate, rose water, most beers, and hopped kombucha.  

 

At first, edible flowers may seem to have a low profile, but they are common in many different types of food and drink from herbal teas to candied flowers, like angelica. They put the wow in wine-based drinks such as amaro, vermouths, liqueurs and even spirits; add in sauces, mustards and vinegars, and you begin to realize that the profile is wider than you thought.  

 

People have always used flowers for their nutrient value and for their medicinal properties, not to mention poison. Decorative elements and aromatic properties followed. Whole industries have been built on their abundant riches - the beauty industry has used floral aromatics in bath oils, soaps, perfumes, skin creams, and hair products, since time immemorial.  

 

The use of fresh flowers is restrained by seasonality, cultural tradition, and availability. Nevertheless, fresh flowers are used in smoothies, mocktails and cocktails, sorbets, soups and salads, where they play a dual role as flavour component and decorative garnish. It is common for professional chefs to use geraniums, pansies, pea blossoms, roses, or nasturtiums in salads, for taste and/or a splash of colour in plating. 


Depending on one’s cultural heritage, cooking with flowers may seem a bit niche, best left to the pros and connoisseurs. How many of us grew up in homes that cooked with flowers? In my family the exception was mom’s dandelion wine, a potent concoction that we nicked on a dare. In Britain, when industrialization shifted the population from farm to city factories in about one generation, there was a massive loss of culinary traditions. Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food, (2nd edition 2006) makes no reference to edible flowers as a subject title, although he does list geraniums, nasturtiums, and roses, for their contribution to the kitchen. Other cultures, particularly in the global south, Asians, Persians, and Africans, use flowers in their cooking.    

 

We generally consider stuffed zucchini blossoms, Fiori Di Zucchini Fritti, to be a quintessential Italian dish. This is ironic, because (Curcurbita pepo), ie. summer squash, courgettes, or zucchini, is native to the Americas, and long before Roman times was used by the peoples of Meso-America as food and medicine. It wasn’t introduced to Italy until the late 1500s. Adding to the irony, the dish then spread from Italy throughout Europe, and back to the “new world”.  

 

Flowers differ considerably in composition, making it difficult to generalize on how best to prepare them for use. Whether you are cooking with roses, chamomile, borage, or day lilies, how you wash, prepare, and save them varies from species to species. Fresh thyme blossoms can be immersed in water, swished around and then dried in a salad spinner, but open-faced flowers like the more delicate pansy, won’t stand-up to similar treatment. Luckily, being open-faced, they are easy to inspect, so a soft rinse will do. Once washed, most flowers can be patted dry with a tea towel, wrapped in a damp cloth, put in an airtight container, and stored in the fridge, where they will keep for two or three days.  

 

If you are just starting to use flowers in the kitchen, take the time to do a bit of research. A good rule-of-thumb is to work with flowers from plants you already know. For example, if you are making a salad with chives that happen to be in bloom, include the flower with the green shoot. Another guideline may be to use plants endemic to Alberta that Indigenous peoples have been using for ages, like Giant Blue Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), or the Wild Alberta Rose.  

 

In recent years local flowers have become a lot easier to acquire. Blooms On 7, a flower farm just east of Edmonton, provides organic flowers for visitors to the farm, chefs, bartenders, home cooks, and wedding planners. They are one of the early founders of the Co-op Flower Network, one of eleven members of local growers who are making it easier for consumers to find edible blooms.  

 

Edible flowers are trending; an overused term that is hard to measure. One way is to consider that Love and Fantasy Flowers and Blooms On 7 specialize in sustainable and organic produce. It is a sure way to distinguish your product from the international flower market, which is notorious for the overuse of sprays that have harmed their pickers. As you can imagine, flowers are absorbent. The majority of the local flower farms, like Blooms On 7, often serve the wedding and special events market, dealing in flowers that figure in table and cake decorations and end-up on dessert plates, hence the importance of a clean, healthy product. 

 

Because flowers need special care to keep well in warm summer conditions, it is risky for vendors to provide fresh blooms at the farmers markets. We can follow what some of the pros do, order online and arrange for pick-up. Silk Road Spice Merchant, in Edmonton and Calgary, carry several culinary dried flowers, such as rose petals, elderflower and lavender. When making sorbet, salads, or cocktails, dried flowers can be infused in the simple syrup, or put directly into the mix.  

 

Our recipe marries the everyday potato salad with a vinaigrette chive flower dressing to show how easy it is to incorporate edible blooms into your favourite dishes. 

 

 

 

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