Flower Power at Your Table This summer, take time to stop and eat the roses. And not just the roses: Try some pansies, tulips or begonias. Suggestions for how to brighten up any meal with colorful and flavorful edible flowers.
NPR logo Flower Power at Your Table

Flower Power at Your Table

A mix of snapdragons, marigolds, violets and nasturtiums brighten up even the most ordinary salad. Scroll down for recipes for lavender-lemon chicken and squash blossom soup. David S. Deutsch hide caption

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David S. Deutsch

A mix of snapdragons, marigolds, violets and nasturtiums brighten up even the most ordinary salad. Scroll down for recipes for lavender-lemon chicken and squash blossom soup.

David S. Deutsch

This summer, take time to stop and eat the roses.

And not just the roses: Try some pansies, tulips or begonias.

About the Author

Bonny Wolf is contributing editor to Kitchen Window and a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. Her book of food essays, Talking with My Mouth Full, will be published by St. Martin's Press in November. You can find more information at her Web site, www.bonnywolf.com.

Eating flowers has been in and out of style since the early days of the Roman Empire, when roses, mallows, violets and gladiolus bulbs were part of the feast on the banquet table.

In the 13th century, Moorish recipes called for syrup flavored with rosewater. Nasturtiums, violets and marigolds have been in English salads since the 17th century, and by the Victorian era, violets were being candied and preserved.

Flowers make colorful garnishes for food and drinks. Larger flowers can be stuffed and fried. They all can be added to brighten the look and flavor of salads, chopped and mixed with butter, used in jellies, infused into vinegars, candied for wedding cakes, frozen in ice cubes or molds, and used to scent sugars or add fragrance to baked goods.

Lavender, lilacs, violets, roses and scented geraniums have a fragrant sweetness. Nasturtiums are peppery, and pansies taste a little like grapes.

The squash blossom was one of the first edible flowers to become relatively common in the United States, thanks to the popularity of Mexican and Italian cooking.

Mexicans eat the delicately flavored squash blossoms in quesadillas and in an elegant soup called sopa de flor de calabaza, which actually translates as pumpkin blossom soup. In Italy, the fragile orange-yellow zucchini blossoms -- fiori di zucca -- are fried, often in a beer batter. They are sometimes stuffed with a soft cheese before frying.

Squash blossoms also can be grilled, poached, steamed or eaten raw in salads. Or just brush them with a little olive oil, pop them in the toaster oven, and spread a little goat cheese on them when they're wilted and hot. They are extremely perishable and will only last about a day.

Other flowers, too, can be battered and fried -- elderflowers, apple blossoms, acacia flowers and lilacs. Nasturtium, violets, marigolds and snapdragons give salads color, texture and cheerfulness. Herb flowers such as those from chives, basil, rosemary and dill are also good in salads and cold soups, or to infuse vinegar.

Day-lily buds are one of the most flavorful of all edible blossoms. They have long been part of Chinese cuisine, in which they are added to soups and stir-fries. They are the only flower to eat unopened.

You can't just go to the florist and get a bunch of flowers to munch on the way home, however. You should only eat flowers that are grown organically. Flowers from florists, nurseries or garden centers are likely to have been treated with pesticides not used for food crops.

And like mushrooms, some flowers are poisonous. For example, don't eat azaleas, daffodils or oleander. If you have any doubt, consult a reputable reference book or horticulturist. The Internet, too, has many reputable sites listing poisonous flowers. Many farmers markets carry edible flowers, as do some supermarkets and specialty food stores.

For some flowers, such as tulips and chrysanthemums, only the petals are edible. It's also nice to separate large blooms into petals or florets and remove the sometimes-bitter disks from flowers such as marigolds and daisies.

You can, of course, grow your own edible flowers. Just pick them early in the morning but after the dew has dried. Use flowers soon after they're picked or else they may develop a bitter taste. If they don't taste or smell good, don't use them.

Also, remove the pistils and stamens from flowers before eating, since the pollen can affect the flavor as well as cause an allergic reaction in some people.

If your flowers have stems, keep them in water until you use them. Otherwise, swish them in a little water and spread on a damp towel and refrigerate no longer than overnight.

Flowers are a colorful, happy addition to the summer table. It's true that a rose is a rose is a rose. But in some instances, it also can be a very good dinner.

Lavender-Lemon Chicken

David S. Deutsch
Lavender-lemon chicken tastes as good as it smells.
David S. Deutsch

Both fresh and dried lavender are extremely aromatic. Lavender has a musky, slightly perfumed taste and goes particularly well with lemon and thyme. Herbes de Provence is a mixture of lavender, thyme, savory, basil and fennel and is good sprinkled on just about any kind of meat or fish. This chicken smells as good as it tastes.

Serves 8

5 pounds chicken, cut into serving pieces

1/4 cup dried lavender (dried lavender is available at health food stores and specialty food markets, as well as some farmers markets)

5 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 cup good olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Zest of 1 large, or 2 small, lemons

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Sprigs of fresh lavender

For marinade, mix together all ingredients except chicken.

Place chicken in a large, nonreactive bowl and pour marinade over it. Cover and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours, turning 2 or 3 times.

Prepare grill and when ready, place chicken pieces over direct fire to quickly sear on each side. Then move to sides of grill, cover and cook by indirect heat until cooked through, turning once. This will take about 10 minutes per side. This chicken can also be cooked in the oven at 375 degrees.

Serve hot or at room temperature, garnished with sprigs of fresh lavender.

Sopa de Flor de Calabaza (Squash Blossom Soup)

This recipe is adapted from Diana Kennedy's The Cuisines of Mexico (Harper & Row 1972).

Serves 6

40 large squash flowers, about 1 pound (use male flowers, not females attached to baby squash)

4 cups good chicken broth

2 medium tomatoes

1/2 small onion, chopped

3 tablespoons butter

Epazote or parsley for garnish (epazote is a strong-flavored herb often used in Mexican cooking; it has flat, pointed leaves and is available dried and sometimes fresh in Latino markets)

Remove stems from flowers, strip off green sepals at the base of the flower, chop the flowers and put them in a saucepan. Cover with the broth and cook until tender, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, line a shallow metal pan with foil and put the tomatoes in it. Place them under a hot broiler and turn occasionally so they cook through evenly. The skin will be blistered and charred. This will take about 20 minutes.

When the blossoms are tender, transfer them and the liquid to a blender or food processor and puree. Return to pan.

Blend the tomatoes together with the onion into a smooth puree.

Melt the butter, add tomato-onion puree and cook over a high heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add mixture to the broth in the saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes.

Serve in warm bowls garnished with epazote or parsley.