More than just another pretty plate

RUBY red Swiss chard, purple broccoli, and bright orange tomatoes serve as ornamentals along the curving path of my community garden plot in the middle of Boston. Like many of today's gardeners, I plant vegetables for decorative value as well as for food, and many of the flowers are for cooking.

Nasturtiums and marigolds will go into salads. Lily buds get stuffed with seafood or cheese. And then there are things like Stuffed Hollyhocks, Fried Hibiscus Blossoms, Pickled Fuchsias With Dill, and Chrysanthemum-Chicken Stir Fry.

This trendy reverse use of materials is not new. It's been going on for hundreds of years in countries all over world.

Chrysanthemums, for example, have been used for centuries in Chinese and Japanese cuisines. They're still used as a classic ingredient and garnish. The Romans, who introduced many of the herbs we use today, also used flowers in cooking.

Today, flowers are beginning to be used more and more with meals. And they have more than pretty faces. Because of a renewed interest in entertaining at home and in making food look attractive and piquant, their distinctive flavors are in demand for cooking.

Jennie Leggatt, a young English cook who has made a study of culinary blooms, works hard at making more people aware of edible flowers. She says, ``It's odd that we in Great Britain have such a long tradition of cultivating flowers, but don't really make full use of them.

``We grow them and fill houses and churches with their bouquets, but we hardly ever think of eating them.

``I'm trying to change that. Cooking with flowers is so rewarding,'' she explains. ``Apart from their really delicious taste, they are simply the most beautiful things with which to decorate food.''

Ms. Leggatt uses flowers for more than just decoration. ``Salads and desserts are obvious choices for experimenting with flowers,'' she says, ``but both fish and meat are delicious when marinated and cooked with flowers.'' Some of her interesting flower recipes include Pumpkin, Chives, Tomato and Nasturtium Bake; Corn and Marigold Fritters; and Shrimp in Cheese Sauce With Violets.

Here's a recipe from her book, ``Cooking With Flowers'' (Fawcett Columbine, New York, $17.95):

Cauliflower With Cheese and Violas 1 cauliflower 2 tablespoons butter or sunflower margarine 1 to 2 tablespoons flour 1/2 cup milk Salt Pepper Pinch ground mace Freshly grated nutmeg 2 to 3 ounces (1/2 to 1/4 cup) Gruy`ere cheese, grated 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley 1 tablespoon viola petals Chopped parsley, fresh violas, garnish

Cook cauliflower in plenty of boiling, salted water until just cooked, but still crunchy. Drain, reserving about 5/8 cup water. Separate cauliflower florets and keep warm in ovenproof dish.

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. In saucepan, melt butter and stir in enough flour to absorb butter. Cook gently 1 minute, then stir in reserved cauliflower water and milk. Bring to boil, stirring continuously; simmer 2 minutes; and season with salt, pepper, a little mace, and plenty of nutmeg. Stir in half the cheese, parsley, and viola petals.

Pour sauce over cauliflower and sprinkle remaining cheese over top. Bake in oven about 25 minutes. Serve garnished with fresh parsley and violas.

Serves 4 to 6.

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