A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, opined William Shakespeare. But did he know that a rose by any other name would taste as sweet, too? If you thought that we had reached peak locavore in 2018, just know that we are still peaking. Flowers, it turns out, are more than just things of beauty. You can eat them. And you should.
First things first: A primer. What can you eat? What should you avoid? That arena, it turns out, is one of active discovery. “There are probably over 125 [flowers] that can be used as an edible flower,” said florist Jeri Woodhouse. “They can range from nasturtium to pansies to roses to day lilies. The important thing is to make sure that you know where it’s grown and how it’s grown. It’s never a good idea to pick up flowers from the side of the road and eat them.” Her 1,400-square foot flower farm in Orient is dedicated to organically grown edible flowers, which she sells at the Sag Harbor and Rockville Centre farmer’s markets.
Of course, eating flowers is nothing new. “Edible flowers have been used since the beginning of flowers,” Woodhouse said. “They were salad dressings in the Medieval times, when they would have had as many as 25 or 30 edible flowers in one salad.” Woodhouse, who has lived on Long Island her entire life, began growing her flowers over a decade ago, at which point she became fascinated with the idea of edible flowers. She describes gardening as “always a hobby,” one that she picked up from her gardening grandmother. “My interest in flowers came from her.”
Woodhouse’s approach to edible flowers is comprehensive. Yes, fairy roses can be used as decorative accents, to be clear, but flowers can be used for far more wide-reaching purposes. Lavender can become lavender butter and lavender limeade. Every part of the nasturtium, down to its seeds, is edible. “They taste like little capers,” she said. “I use them for making vinegars.” Day lilies can be stuffed like peppers, or squash blossoms. “The petals are harder than squash,” she said. “I have seen people even take the whole flower and dip the ends in chocolate and put them in the freezer and put ice cream in them and use them for dessert.” Tulips, she noted, while no longer in season, can be used in similar fashion.
For Missi Bullock, a florist and owner of Missi Flowers, the art of edible flowers is still unfolding. Bullock moved to New York from Oklahoma 13 years ago, with the dream of becoming a floral designer. After securing her first job, she never really left. “Everyone in my family was a gardener,” she said, “so it’s always something I’ve been very interested in.”
After establishing a successful business as a florist, catering to private homes, Bullock migrated east, where she now owns an 11-acre East Hampton farm (formerly the Pantigo Road site of Bhumi Farms) called “The Field,” in conjunction with Jeff Pennington and Lori Chemla. “Years ago, this woman planted a medicinal wheel with all these medicinal herbs,” Bullock said of the farm. “There’s chamomile. There’s sage. There’s bergamot. There’s so many cool things. I collect a lot of those things. Doing flowers without growing your own, to me, doesn’t satisfy the same need I have for it.”
While Bullock is still in the initial stages of building her flower farm, she has learned much about flowers and their edibleness in the meantime. She delivers her flowers, bucket by bucket, to one client in particular, Carissa Waechter of Carissa’s Bakery, who uses them on her cakes and pies. Some favorites include bachelor buttons (bright blue flowers also known as cornflowers), chocolate cosmos, honeysuckle and roses. She recently discovered that the white blooms that precede strawberries — strawberry flowers — were edible. She urged me not to try them. “They were horrible,” she said. Still, she sees her work as a blank canvas. “I’m also in the beginning stages of learning all of this,” she said. “This is an area that I can’t wait to be an expert on.”
So how does a restaurant chef use edible flowers? Stephan Bogardus, a Cutchogue native and Chef d’Cuisine for Southold’s North Fork Table and Inn, finds new uses all the time. “I was raised around a culture of being outside, specifically gardening,” he said. “My mom knew a good deal about flowers. I was raised with the idea of: These ones are OK. Certain more obscure ones, like scented geranium, I grew up eating in salads.” Chef Bogardus approaches the use of flowers in cooking as this: A flower must enhance the aesthetic, yes, but it also has to taste good.
As a result, he uses herb flowers constantly in his work. “A lot of people out here don’t grow chervil, because it goes to flower so easily,” he said. “But the flowers have these beautiful, herbaceous qualities. All that stuff that goes to flower, we eat, and we use the blossoms. Springtime, you see a lot of those yellow flowers: broccoli, kale. But then you get into those white flowers, arugula. And then, in summertime, you start to get the oranges and purples.” He believes, too, in experimenting with flowers that are less commonly used, like marigolds, which many people do not know are edible. Pull off the hip, which can be bitter, and the flower is completely usable in the kitchen.
In fact, Chef Bogardus uses many flowers less commonly associated with cooking: calendula for its sweetness, snapdragons for their color contrast, pansies for their aroma (as smell is responsible for part of taste). He steeps basil flowers in vinegar, serves flowering cilantro over gazpacho. “I think a lot of people lose that loop, and there’s a break,” he said of the understanding of flowering plants and their culinary uses. Sourcing his flowers from KK’s the Farm, Deep Roots Farm, and Trieber’s Farm, Chef Bogardus considers the work to be integrative. He had one concluding thought. “I use them as much as possible,” he said.
Foie Gras Torchon with Berry-Basil Compote and Edible Flowers
By Stephen Bogardus
Note: We recommend purchasing the foie gras torchon from a reputable purveyor, like D’Artagnan.
4 pints mulberries or blueberries
1 cup fresh basil, picked
4 tsp sea salt
In a medium saucepot, combine all ingredients and place over a low heat. Cover with a lid and cook for five to ten minutes. Uncover and stir; the juices from the berries should begin to emerge from the fruit and will begin to reduce, becoming very aromatic. Uncover and cook over low heat for an additional 20 minutes, until the berries have completely dissolved and the liquids have thickened slightly. Purée lightly with an immersion blender and allow to cool.
Serve over a sliced piece of foie gras torchon, and garnish with picked pansy and chrysanthemum petals.
Pickled Nasturtium Pods
(Makes 1/2 pint)
2/3 cup nasturtium seed pods (picked in late summer)
1/4 cup salt
2 cups water
2/3 cup distilled white vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1 bay leaf
Harvest young, light green, half-ripened seed pods while they’re still on the vines. Separate the pods into individual seeds, and give them a quick rinse to remove any dirt.
In a quart jar, dissolve the salt in water.Add the nasturtium seeds, then place a plastic bag over the rim and down into the jar to keep the seeds submerged. Let the brine sit for a couple of days at room temperature. The seeds will turn a dull green during this stage.
Strain the seeds and rinse again to remove excess salt.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the vinegar and sugar to a low boil for one minute and stir to dissolve.
Divide your seeds into half-pint jars, then pour the hot vinegar over the seeds, covering them completely. Add one bay leaf to each jar. Let the jars cool to room temperature before sealing with lids. Store jars in the fridge. The pickled pods will keep indefinitely.