On this episode of Earth Eats, master gardener and host of WFIU’s Focus on Flowers, Moya Andrews, shares a few of her thoughts about eating flowers and we hear from Earth Eats’ Chef Daniel Orr about vegetable and herb garden flowers, wrapping up with his recipe for chicken fried zucchini blossoms.
From Master Gardener Moya Andrews:
Moya Andrews is the incredibly charming hostess of the show Focus on Flowers, our resident flower lady, and boy does she know her stuff. Since we’re talking today about eating flowers, who better to bring in for the podcast this week than the flower lady herself. Listen to our complete interview with Moya (MP3).
Annie Corrigan: Eating flowers… is that sort of sacrilegious?
Moya Andrews: Well, I would never eat a flower. I have this feeling that flowers are to be enjoyed and looked at visually. But I do love flowers as a garnish. I think that seeing the flower helps the food taste better. I do think there is a connection between taste and smell and sight. But, I myself personally, could never eat a flower!
AC: And I wonder what the Chef would say, because I wonder if he puts the garnish on there as something that you should enjoy with your eyes and your nose as well as your sense of taste – that he wants you to eat it. It’s not just a garnish anymore.
MA: I don’t know, most people don’t eat them. I’ve noticed that most of them remain on the plate. I take mine home. I slip it into my purse because I don’t want to be parted from it once I have it in front of me.
But people have eaten flowers for centuries. And in fact, the medicinal properties of flowers are well known. The ancients recognized how important flowers were. Actually herbs, spices, all kinds of plants were used to cover up the taste of spoiled food.
Also of course they strewed herbs on the floor to make the room smell better, because so much of what was cooked, the smells remained and other unfortunate smells as well. But, they were used not as a flavor themselves but to mask other flavors in the beginning.
So sweet smelling plants, such as herbs, spices, and roses… Roses have a long history… the adar of roses was produced for many centuries and rose water was used as a flavoring. But it was also used as a deodorant. So, we know that medicinally and just to make things smell better, flowers and plants of all kinds have been used for centuries.
Some Flowers Are Poisonous
There is a movement now to use them more in cooking, and that’s kind of fun. But people have to be reminded to only eat flowers that are not poisonous. And also to never eat something if you haven’t checked out in terms of whether or not it’s organic. Because sometimes you might see a plant at a nursery or a shop like a grocery store that sells plants, and you don’t know whether the people that grew those plants used pesticides. And probably the shopkeeper doesn’t know, because they could have been sprayed six weeks ago, but the contamination would persist.
So, what we need to say is only grow flowers yourself that you’re going to eat, because that’s the only way you can be absolutely sure. If you grow them from seed, you know they’ve never been sprayed, and if they’ve been in your garden under your supervision then you can be quite confident about eating them.
What Are Some Other Flowers You Can Eat?
AC: Right! And you talked about roses, you can eat roses. You can also eat squash blossoms – I know a lot of chefs do things with squash blossoms. Talk to me about other flowers you can eat.
MA: Well, I’ve got a long list of them here! I’ll talk a little bit about bee balm, which is blooming now in Bloomington. The bees love those shaggy, brightly colored flowers. They are a member of the mint family so they spread quickly and easily, but they can also be pulled up easily. The Native Americans loved this bee balm, it’s a native plant. And I love bergamot tea, so in some ways I do eat flowers. In fact, I brought some for your today!
AC: Really? Alright!
MA: I think bee balm is a wonderful thing. We can all grow it so easily, and we can make tea from it. But also, you can chop the leaves and put with black beans. That’s what was done by some of the early people in North America.
Now, borage, which is an herb, is also something. And, calendula – those little yellow daisies, they’re annuals. You can buy them at the local nursery. And the Dutch, I read, used to use a few dried petals of the yellow calendula as a substitute for saffron, which was, of course, so much more expensive. But the calendula doesn’t have the taste of saffron, but it gives a stew – which is what the Dutch used it for – it gives a stew a sort of yellowy tinge as though there is saffron in it.
And of course, chives – the flowers of chives can be used. And chrysanthemums are edible, so that’s a whole big family of plants that we have easy access to growing. But we wouldn’t want to buy them already in bud and plant them and then eat them. We must remember that! We have to start them young in our gardens.
Dandelions – I’ve got a lovely recipe for dandelion salad. Day lilies, of course, they are used quite often – the buds as well as the flowers. And then you mentioned the squash blossoms. I was reading that there are male and female ones, and the female ones have a little knob where the fruit, or the zucchini, is going to develop. And the males one are larger and they don’t have that little knob. The writer that I was reading said that the male ones are tastier. I don’t like that – that sounds sexist.
AC: Huh! I think we need to have a taste test here at Earth Eats. Moya, we’re going to have to have a taste test and see
MA: We are. We don’t want to promote any one sex in terms of squash blossoms. But they are also wonderfully good to eat, the taste is good. You pick them when they are very small. You have to be careful of bees, because the bees are sometimes buzzing around. So I was able to learn from reading this book about how you cook squash blossoms.
Hollyhocks you can eat. Honey suckle you can eat. Lavender you can eat. And Nasturtiums. Of course, we all like the thought of eating nasturtium but you can do lots of things with them. You can use the seeds much as you use pickled capers – you can pickle them. You can chop up the leaves in salad, they give a peppery taste. And you can also eat the flowers. You can bake the flowers in breads. But anyway you can also eat the flowers just raw. So they’re a wonderful one.
Lavender, mint, pansy, porchulaca – I didn’t know about that one until I recently researched it – and rose. And rosemary and snapdragon and violet and, right at the end of the alphabet, yucca can be eaten. I’ve never eaten it though, nor am I likely to.
How About The Ones We Shouldn’t Eat
AC: Maybe we’ll leave that to Chef to try that. I don’t know if I want to try that. So we have a long list of flowers you can eat. Are there flowers you absolutely should not eat?
MA: Oh yes. There are some very poisonous plants. And so in a way I think it’s probably better not to introduce children to eating flowers especially when they’re very young because they would over-generalize and think you could eat anything.
Oleanders, which are a tropical plant you see in Florida and California, they are deathly poisonous. And gas plant that I have in my garden. Dictimus is very highly toxic. There are a number of plants that actually if you brush against them you’ll get a rash. So you certainly wouldn’t want to eat those. In a way, we shouldn’t even mention them because we don’t want to get them mixed up with the list of plants that we can eat.
Know Where Your Flowers Are Coming From
AC: I think the best advice you gave today was to know where you flowers are coming from. You don’t want to eat things with pesticides on them, you definitely don’t want to do that. And just like we’re talking about with Earth Eats every week, it’s all about eating locally and knowing where you food comes from. So this fits right in line with that.
MA: That’s right! And you eat the flowers that you have already Google’d I would think. I would think that would be a good thing. And also check them all for bugs. And don’t eat anything that you haven’t already washed carefully in case there’s a little big hiding in a crevasse.
I have a few other things here… Poppy seeds, of course! We’re all eaten poppy seeds for years, and they’re available commercially and they’re used in baked goods. Borage and nasturtium and chives are popular on salads. Day lilies, pansies, and violas are wonderful for decorating fruit plates.
AC: You know, I had a day lily with Chef Orr. We went to his garden and he was picking flowers for us to eat. It was the most amazing taste, to pick a petal off a flower and then eat. Do you have any experiences like that? I know you don’t eat flowers…
MA: No! See I would never mutilate a flower like that! I never pull a petal off a flower! I know it sounds squeamish, but flowers are almost sacred to me. So I’ve got to have them there to look at – in tact!
AC: Makes sense, absolutely! Moya Andrews, do you have anything else to say to me today?
MA: I don’t! I just think it’s wonderful that you’re looking at all the dimensions associated with flowers, because anything to do with flowers I think is interesting and inspiring.
Moya recommends this book for anyone out there interested in cooking with flowers. It’s called “Herb Garden Cooking,” by Dorry Baird Norris. It’s arranged by months so you can look up seasonally appropriate dishes.
From Chef Daniel Orr:
I have a hard time waiting for my vegetables to mature. That is just my impatience once again taking over. I love planting; waiting and watching the seeds break through the soil and grab at the sun. Seeing them go from pale to green with their daily dose of chlorophyll. What I hate is the wait from shoot to fruit. Good thing many vegetable plants have edible flowers you can munch on along the way!
Zucchini And Other Squash Blossoms
I love zucchini and other squash blossoms. I usually stuff them with something before battering them and frying them but they are also good stuffed with fish or chicken and steamed for a lighter dish.
I learned about cooking zucchini flowers in Milan when staying at a friend’s house. I was taught the fine art of Risotto Milanaise and fried zucchini flowers stuffed with fresh mozzarella and anchovies in a light tomato sauce. Both of these dishes I learned are classics in the Italian kitchen. There is nothing better than learning a new dish at the elbow of a friend, especially if coached in an Italian accent.
Other Vegetable And Herb Garden Flowers
There are many other vegetable and herb garden flowers that are great to eat. I love tiny purple chive flowers sprinkled over most anything… They are great over soups, salads and starters. You can also try their white cousins from the Chinese garlic chive plant.
Pea and bean buds and flowers are sweet and charming; steam their big brothers and sisters, who have already grown long and tall, and toss them in olive oil and citrus, then top with a few of these pretty blossoms.
Borage flowers are blue and beautifully star shaped. They have a mild cucumber flavor making them perfect for topping a bowl of cucumbers in sour cream dressing. They are also nice on gazpachos and other cold soups. The flowers make a cheerful welcome floating on top of a cocktail so try them in your next Gin and Tonic or Pimm’s Cup.
Overwhelmed With Your Garden’s Bounty?
When summer truly sets in, you may find yourself overwhelmed with your garden’s bounty. This is another good time to harvest flowers to prevent your plants from taking over your refrigerator. I keep my basil and other herbs under control by pinching back their flower buds and using them in salads, herb salts, syrups and pestos.
With hotter days you may also find that some of your plants “bolt.” This is when the plant sends up its flower and seed stalks. Take advantage of this by eating your arugula, cilantro, radish, dill and fennel flowers.
Many decorative flowers may also be eaten, such and marigolds, peonies, carnations, nasturtiums… all have great floral flavors with a touch of bitterness and peppery aftertaste. Use them over mild rice dishes or sprinkled over lettuce in your summer salads.
Chicken Fried Zucchini Flowers with Basil, Mozzarella
If you pick these straight out of your garden do it in the early morning to get the best flowers. When they get hit by the midday sun they will close. Refrigerate them until needed. You can add black olives, sun-dried tomatoes or anchovies to the stuffing. You can change up the cheese to ricotta or other mild white cheese. You can also use pumpkin or other squash flowers. Makes 4 appetizers.
- 16 large squash blossoms
- 1 (1/2 pound) lightly salted fresh mozzarella ball, room temperature
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- pinch of salt
- 16 large basil leaves
- 4 eggs beaten with 1 tablespoon water
- 2 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
- flour as needed for dredging
- oil for frying
- tomato sauce as needed
- herbs or greens as garnish
- Open the flowers by ripping them down one side. Remove stamen from flowers and lay out flat on a cookie tray or large plate.
- Cut the cheese into 16 small cubes and toss in a bowl with the garlic, olive oil, spices and salt.
- Wrap each piece in a large basil leaf and place one cube of seasoned cheese in each flower. Wrap the petal around the cheese and fold the end over to form a package. Give the flower a light squeeze to tighten the package.
- Beat eggs and water together and season with salt and pepper.
- Dredge in flour, then egg mixture, then breadcrumbs and sauté or deep fry.
- Serve with fresh tomato sauce and garnish with basil or other herbs or greens.