The Impressionists often placed dabs of unexpected color onto their canvases, as Claude Monet did in "Poppy Field at Argenteuil," where a dappled meadow comes alive with flares of red-orange. Artistic-minded cooks are expanding their culinary palettes with the unexpected color, texture, and taste of edible flowers.
The use of flowers in cooking follows two movements in the food world, according to Lucy Wing, contributing food editor for Country Living magazine: the increasing number of companies that sell fresh herbs and edible flowers, and the exploration of historic and ethnic cuisines, such as those of the early Americas and Asia.
As chefs and gardening cooks experiment with ever-widening combinations of greens, herbs, and vegetables, edible flowers have become far more than attractive garnishes. Still, it's hard for diners to get used to the idea. "People are timid about them, they say, 'Oh, they're too pretty to eat,'" says Ms. Wing, who has grown and used edible flowers for a decade.
Restaurant patrons who may have segregated flower blossoms to the far side of their plates may think again, when they learn about the surprising versatility and delicacy of edible flowers.
A word of caution: Only certain flowers are edible, so it's important to be able to identify them. A guide to edible flowers and herbs should be consulted. Choose flowers grown in your own garden that are free of pesticides, or buy from special growers. Flowers from a florist or nursery are not suitable, nor are those that grow along roads - because of car emissions.
As a general rule, eat only the flower petals, not pistils and stamens. As with anything new you would introduce into your diet, start slowly with small amounts.
Like many so-called culinary trends, edible flowers have been around for a long time. Before spices were discovered, many cultures used infusions of plant leaves or flowers to make teas and flavor sauces. Saffron rice, for example, gets its subtlety from a type of crocus.
In Victorian times, the sweet wild violet was a symbol of purity and femininity. Ladies carried bouquets of hot-house violets to the opera, violet water was a common cosmetic, and French confectioners made (and still make) pastel mints from violet syrup. Along with pansies, whose mild flavor is a bit like wintergreen, violets are quintessential wedding-cake and dessert flowers: When brushed with egg white and superfine granulated sugar, they dry into permanent bloom.
Among the best-known of edible flowers is the nasturtium, and its color, ranging from yellow to orange to russet red, brightens salads. Nasturtiums thrive in poor soil, tolerate hot weather, and are easy to start from seed. The flowers have a tangy, slightly peppery taste. A salad of baby lettuces, a handful of purple chive blossoms, tiny marigold petals, and nasturtium blooms tossed with a simple oil-and-vinegar dressing makes a tantalizing beginning to a summer meal.
June is the high season for roses, and their petals are also edible. Roses are believed to have been first cultivated during the Shen Nung Dynasty in China, from 2737 to 2697 BC. In cooking, roses are used to impart a sweet or spicy fragrance to desserts and an unusual note to sauces (remember the notorious Quail in Rose Petal Sauce featured in Laura Esquivel's book and film, "Like Water for Chocolate"?). In using rose petals, you'll want to discard the base of the flower and cut off the bitter-tasting whitish part where the petals were attached.
Sunflowers, which rise in sturdy rows in the fields of Provence in southern France, are extremely hardy and rewarding plants to grow and use in cooking. The seeds find their way into snacks for people and food for birds, and are commercially prized for the oil they yield. The thin yellow petals, along with squash blossoms whose taste is similar, can be steamed lightly and added to pasta dishes.
Many of the familiar herbs, such as basil, chives, and sage, offer painterly possibilities as the plants flower. The colorful blossoms in purples and blues highlight meat dishes and onion tarts. The white whorls of mint blossoms are as fresh and cool tasting as the leaves.
Honeysuckle is an edible flower favored by kids, who learn how to sip the sweet nectar by pulling out the stamen and sucking on the end like a miniature Slurpee.
Edible flowers can be grown anywhere, between the rows of a vegetable garden, or in clay pots on a city fire escape. The only trick is convincing your family and friends that they're really not "too pretty to eat."
* A good recipe and source book is "Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate" by Cathy Wilkinson Barash (Fulcrum Publishing, 1993, soon to be reissued in paperback). A poster with photos of edible flowers is available for $15 from Ten Speed Press by calling 800-841-2665. A number of seed companies sell mixtures for edible flowers, including Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine, which carries the book "Flowers in the Kitchen," call: (207) 437-4301.