Get Growing: Eat and drink your garden

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While much has been written on plants you should not consume, a delightful byproduct of growing flowers is eating – or drinking – them – if you choose the right ones.

First things first: identify your plant, do your research as to which part of the plant is edible, and if possible, select organically grown flowers for your table. If you purchase flowers or pick them from a roadside, they may have been treated with insecticide or fungicide.

Flowers have so many uses in the kitchen – they can be frozen, battered, baked, candied with sugar or used as a garnish atop soups, salads, and adding decorative punch and flavor to lemonade or iced tea, and cocktails.

One favorite available much of the year in the Pacific Northwest is the viola/pansy clan. Pansies, with their bold, painted faces, are the supersized cousin of the wild violet. Their flavor is described as mild and grassy, but they add an intricate beauty to any application. Some favorite uses are in ice cubes for cocktails, as a salad garnish, or candied for decorating cakes. I seem to recall Martha Stewart once making a frozen cylinder filled with pansies by using a vodka bottle as a mold on her television show, but I could be wrong. I’m pretty sure of the elements, but as the boxes say, ingredients may have shifted over the years in memory. It was like most Martha projects, exacting but exquisite.

Rose petals bring a variety of scents and flavors to your recipes, from floral to sweet or slightly spicy. For my wedding I attempted to recreate a rose lemonade popular at Mr. Falafel in Brooklyn many years ago. Unfortunately, I used too heavy a hand and my batch tasted like liquid perfume. Rose hips, the hard seed casing that forms after the flowers, are beloved for containing massive amounts of vitamin C and are popular additions to floral tea blends.

Easy-to-grow calendula blossoms have a slightly bitter taste and look charming in a salad or floating in a summer soup. Another great choice for salads, soups, or drinks is the ethereal blue star-shaped borage flowers, which taste like cucumber and just look fabulous. For a spicy kick, throw nasturtiums in the mix - they have a peppery edge like arugula.

Speaking of arugula, don’t neglect its pale-yellow blossoms at the end of the season, which share the same pepper power as the leaves.

Many herbs carry their leaf flavor into their flowers, and you can take full advantage of this in your creative cooking. Basil blossoms, especially from purple-leafed types, make a stunning finishing touch for caprese salad, pizza, pasta, or Thai dishes depending on the cultivar. You can choose Italian, Thai or African types. The latter two skew toward licorice in flavor.

You can really have fun with some large edible blossoms. Both the flowers of elder shrubs (Sambucus nigra and S. canadensis), and squash flowers can be battered and fried into fritters. In the case of the trumpet shaped squash blossom, they can be stuffed with soft cheese. Elder flowers are also used in cordials and simple syrups for cocktails and mocktails. (The elderberry wine made famous in Cary Grant’s vintage screwball comedy film “Arsenic and Old Lace” is made from Sambucus nigra berries, not the blossoms.)

The much-maligned dandelion punctuating many a lawn makes a sweet cordial, syrup, or wine as well – just choose flowers from a field you know is cultivated organically. I once sampled some decades-old dandelion wine put up in a Coke bottle from a grandmother’s basement– it had quite a kick and would have been delicious on vanilla ice cream.

The tiny pompoms of chive blossoms make a savory vinaigrette. So-called “garlic chives” have white blossoms and standard chive plants have rosy pink flowers. Despite the names, the taste is similar, but the pink color looks so pretty in a jar.

Lavender flowers have a strong and sweet flavor often used in baking, teas, and ice cream – like at Molly Moon’s, for instance. The English varieties (L. angustifolia) are they types most chosen for cooking because they have less oil than the French types used to make perfume.

So next time you’re wondering what’s for dinner, take a stroll in the garden for inspiration.


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