Meet Herb

Most often when thinking of herbs we tend to think green and leafy, or variations on the theme. More and more however, we find colourful flowers taking their place in the world of food. Not only do they impart distinctive tastes to the foods to which they are added, but they can make them eye pleasing as well.

This month, I thought it would be interesting to look at the various flowers that can be used to enhance flavour as well as create visual appeal in the dishes we present to our families and friends. I see you out there cringing in disbelief, but hold off judgement till you've at least heard me out. I promise, somewhere in this month's column you will find inspiration to try eating a flower or two yourself.

As long as you know for sure the flowers have been grown without the use of pesticides or chemicals, many flowers can be edible. Some markets are even beginning to include edible flowers on their produce shelves though they can be a bit pricey. If a green thumb is part of your repertoire, then consider growing your own, nothing beats picking them fresh from the garden and using them immediately. Beware though that getting these same edible flowers from a florist is not a good alternative because of what is added to them in order to give them prolonged vase life and keep them pest free.

Typically, some of the very same herbs you use in your kitchen produce tasty flowers that are quite palatable. Try snipping sage, bergamot, rosemary, or lavender flowers into your salads along with nasturtium, borage and chive blossoms. Anchusa italica -- a relative of borage -- rose and calendula petals, primroses, and violets can all go into the salad bowl. Or try St. John's wort, yellow potentilla or cinquefoil blossoms.

I've included a list of some other edible varieties of posies (with all due kudos to the folks at the Cook's Thesaurus) to help you further recognize and choose what to plant in your edible flower garden. Please don't experiment with flowers other than those I've mentioned or which are found in the list though. Some flowers just taste bad but others are downright poisonous.

Flower Notes
Apple blossoms
Borage Nasturtiums, violets or rose petals may be substituted
Carnations They add a nice peppery flavour
Chive flowers = chive blossoms
Clary Nasturtiums, borage or violets can be substituted
Dianthus These flowers have a nice clove-like flavour
English primrose
Golden needles = lily buds = lily flowers
Hibiscus flowers = Jamaica
Impatiens While these blossoms are pretty, they don't add much flavour
Indian cress See also nasturtiums
Jamaica = hibiscus = Jamaica sorrel = Roselle Red zinger tea can be substituted
Johnny jump up Pansy or violet may be substituted
Lavender Use this flower to flavour jellies, baked goodies and grilled meats
Parfait d'Amour (a lavender flavoured liqueur) can be substituted
Lemon blossoms
Lily buds See golden needles
Lily flowers See golden needles
Mimosa blossoms
Nasturtiums = Indian cress Substitute marigolds or pansies
Orange blossoms
Peach blossoms
Plum blossoms
Pot marigold (petals only)
Roselle See Jamaica
Rose petals Substitute violet flowers
Sage blossoms
Squash blossoms = flor de calabaza Great for garnishes, can be stuffed with fillings and fried, or dipped in a batter and fried like fritters, or sauté them briefly and add them to omelettes or quesadillas
Tiger lily buds See golden needles
Viola, violet Substitute nasturtium or borage or pansy

Candied or crystallized flowers are used in pastry making as garnishes all the time. They can make even the plainest of cakes look like it just came from the local French Patisserie. To candy flowers, whisk an egg white, then use a brush to paint a fine layer onto clean, dry, pesticide-free flower petals (or whole flowers if they're very small). Next, gently place the petal in some superfine sugar, and sprinkle some more superfine sugar on top. Shake off the excess and lay the flower out on waxed paper to dry (this can take as long as eight hours).

Rose Petal Fruit Salad

Rose flower water is available from liquor stores, Middle Eastern markets and fancy supermarkets.
  • 1 1/2 cups rinsed blueberries
  • 3 1/2 cups sliced nectarines
  • 1/4 cup rose petals, rinsed and drained
  • 1/4 cup Johnny jump ups (stems pinched off), rinsed and drained
  • 2 tbsp raspberry vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tsp rose flower water
  • salt (optional)

Arrange berries and nectarines on a platter; sprinkle flowers over the fruit.

In a small bowl, mix vinegar with rose flower water to taste. Spoon evenly over the salad. Season to taste with salt.

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 10 to 15 minutes

Nasturtium Pasta Salad

To make cucumber sticks, slice the cucumber into 1/8 inch rounds, stack the rounds and cut into 1/4 inch wide pieces. Rinse and drain the calendula or marigold flowers and then pull off the petals.
  • 3/4 lb dried farfalle (bow tie) pasta
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 1 cup crumbled feta cheese (4oz by weight)
  • 3/4 English cucumber sticks
  • salt
  • 1/2 cup calendula or marigold petals
  • 3 1/2 cups nasturtium blossoms, rinsed and drained
  • 3 1/2 tender nasturtium leaves, or butter lettuce leaves, rinsed and drained

Cook pasta until tender to bite, about 10 minutes. Drain, immerse in cold water and drain when cool, about three minutes.

In a large bowl, mix lemon juice, oil and pepper. Add pasta, feta and cucumber. Mix and season to taste with salt. Add calendula petals, and nasturtium blossoms; mix gently.

Line a platter or individual serving plates with the nasturtium leaves. Spoon salad onto the leaves.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Strawberry Begonia Salad

  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 tsp grated lemon peel
  • 8 cups butter lettuce leaves, rinsed and drained
  • 2 cups strawberries, rinsed and hulled
  • 1 1/4 cups begonia blossoms, rinsed and drained
  • 2 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves, rinsed and drained
  • salt and pepper

Mix vinegar, honey and lemon peel together.

Place the lettuce in a bowl. Cut strawberries in 1/3 inch think slices and scatter over the lettuce. Top with begonias and tarragon.

Mix salad and season to taste with salt and pepper.

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Rice and Rosemary Blossom Salad

Other suitable blue flowers are chive and sage blossoms. Garnish salad with herb sprigs that match whichever flower you use.
  • 1 cup long grain rice, cooked with 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup walnut pieces
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 chopped chives
  • 1/4 cup Italian parsley, rinsed and drained
  • salt
  • 3 tbsp rosemary blossoms, rinsed and drained

In a frying pan over medium heat, stir walnuts in 1 tbsp oil until they are golden, about 5 minutes.

Pour nut mixture over the cooled rice. Add remaining olive oil and lemon juice, chives and parsley; add salt to taste. Mix with a fork. Sprinkle salad with rosemary blossoms.

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 25 minutes, plus cooling time for rice

Rose Petal Pudding

This is a light summery recipe and is based on a traditional 18th century English dessert called Junket or "swaying cream".
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tbsp rose petal superfine sugar (see below)
  • 1 tsp powdered gelatin
  • 2 tbsp triple rosewater
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • crystallized rose petals for decorating

Heat the milk and sugar to boiling point stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in the powdered gelatin and the rosewater. Pour into a decorative glass dish and leave uncovered for about 30 minutes or until the dessert is just set. Once the pudding is set, whip the cream and spread it over the top and decorate with the crystallized rose petals. This is wonderful served with fresh raspberries or strawberries.

Flavoured Sugar
If you're into a lot of baking, it's a nice idea to keep a selection of these flavoured sugars on hand in small sealed mason jars. They can be flavoured with mint, rose petals, rosemary sprigs, bay leaves, lavender flowers, scented geranium leaves and thyme sprigs. Something I always have on hand in my house is vanilla sugar. The amount of herb you use will vary with the amount of sugar and the intensity of flavour you're looking for.

Just fill a jar with sugar -- any type be it icing, super fine or regular -- and stir into it your herb of choice. Seal tightly and allow to sit shaking occasionally for several days . . . before using make sure to strain out any leaves or twigs.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: about an hour

Frozen Citrus Dessert

Lemon scented geranium leaves add a subtle flavour and fragrance to this quick and easy dessert which may be served frozen or chilled.
  • grated zest AND juice of two oranges
  • grated zest AND juice of 1 lemon
  • 3 - 4 lemon scented geranium leaves
  • 12 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup superfine sugar
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 16 ladyfinger cookies

Line a 1 pound loaf pan. Infuse the zest and juice of the oranges and lemon in a bowl with the geranium leaves for 30 minutes.

Beat the butter and sugar until thick and pale lemony yellow; beat the egg yolks in one at a time. Discard the herb leaves and gradually beat the fruit juice into the egg mixture. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, then fold them into the mixture.

Arrange alternate layers of ladyfingers and fruit mixture in the pan, finishing with ladyfingers.

Wrap in foil and freeze for at least 3 hours. Serve it frozen or transfer it to the refrigerator for one hour before serving. Decorate the top with scented geranium leaves.

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 45 minutes (excluding freezing time)

Violet Honey

Flower scented honey was popular in Victorian England. You can use it as a spread, to flavour sauces, or stir into yogurt.
  • 1 cup clear honey
  • 1/2 violet petals

Pour the honey into the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Stir in the violet petals, cover and heat for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for several days.

Reheat the flavoured honey to make it easier to pour and strain it back into the jar.

Rosemary honey can be made in the same way using several sprigs of rosemary and makes a very nice breakfast preserve.

  • Yields: 1 cup
  • Preparation Time: 30 minutes plus infusion time

And there we have it!! A bouquet of posies for your palate. Try them for your family soon.

I'll be back in this very same spot next month, in the mean time "Happy Gardening!!"