Beauty And The Feast
Edible flowers add flavor and flair to springtime dishes

By Lisa Turner
Photos by Rita Maas

Flowers are lovely on the table, but how about pansies floating in your soup or nasturtiums tossed with the salad? Get ready for a blossoming trend: Edible petals are this year's pick for making springtime meals special.

Although unfamiliar to most cooks in the United States, flowers have graced world cuisines for centuries. Luscious rose petals figure prominently in traditional Persian dishes, daylilies spring up in Asian cuisine, Italian and Hispanic cultures introduced bright-yellow squash blossoms, and in Victorian America, candied lilacs were common confections. Fragrant, flavorful, and colorful, edible flowers add an unmistakable dash of drama to any dish.

But don't start eating the centerpiece from last night's party. Flowers from florists, nurseries, and garden centers are unfit for consumption because producers may have treated the plants with chemicals unapproved for use on food products. Growing your own is an excellent option because "you can't just walk down the street or into someone's back yard and start pulling off flowers to eat," says Robert Schueller, of Melissa's Produce in Los Angeles. "They may be contaminated with sprays and fertilizers, and many common varieties are toxic, even if you think you recognize them." So be sure the petals you choose are edible and have been raised specifically for food use. The simplest option is to purchase flowers at the grocery; prepackaged varieties are commonly found in the fresh-herb section. Finally, some edible petals may trigger allergic reactions, so use caution if you have asthma or hay fever.

Bright and beautiful flowers are easy to incorporate into springtime recipes. First immerse them in cool water to flush out any bugs, then gently pat dry or spin in a salad spinner. Sort through blossoms, removing stamens and pistils from larger flowers and discarding unopened buds or wilted flowers. If you need to store blooms, place them between damp paper towels and refrigerate for a day or two. Flowers can also be dried by hanging them upside down in a cool, dry spot; use them as you would dried herbs. Take your pick from these flower-filled recipes and enjoy the taste of spring.

Grilled Chicken Salad with Rosemary Blossoms

Serves 4 / Colorful rosemary blossoms, cubes of fresh mango, and crisp jicama make this easy salad elegant. If grilling is not an option, bake or broil chicken breasts instead.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 cups arugula, washed well, large stems removed
3/4 cup rosemary flowers
1/2 lemon, seeded
1 large mango, peeled and cubed
2 cups cubed jicama
4 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted

1. Rinse chicken breasts, pat dry, and rub with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Grill chicken on an oiled rack 5-6 inches over medium-hot coals for 5 minutes on each side.

2. While chicken is grilling, place arugula and 1/2 cup rosemary flowers in a medium bowl and squeeze lemon over leaves and blossoms. Drizzle with remaining olive oil and toss to coat. Divide arugula salad among four individual plates and place one grilled chicken breast on each plate. Arrange mango and jicama on each plate, sprinkle with pine nuts and remaining rosemary flowers, and serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 368 calories % fat calories: 50 Fat: 21g Saturated Fat: 3g Cholesterol: 63mg Carbohydrate: 18g Protein: 30g Fiber: 5g Sodium: 578mg

Chilled Potato-Leek Soup with Purple Pansies and Basil

Serves 4 / This cool, ready-for-summer soup can be prepared several days ahead of time; just add flowers right before serving. To make basil chiffonade, stack basil leaves, roll up, and slice crosswise.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium leeks, white part only, trimmed, washed well, and thinly sliced
1/4 cup minced onion
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound red potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup half-and-half or whole milk
1/2 cup purple pansy petals
1/2 cup basil chiffonade
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Shaved Parmesan cheese, for garnish
Whole purple pansies, for garnish

1. In a heavy saucepan, heat oil and sauté leeks, onion, and garlic over medium heat for 2 minutes. Stir in potatoes, wine, and broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes, or until potatoes are very tender. Purée soup in batches, transferring each batch to a metal bowl set in a larger bowl of ice water. Let soup cool for 20 minutes, or until cold (or refrigerate 1 hour).

2. Stir in half-and-half, pansy petals, and basil. Season with salt and white pepper. Garnish with cheese, if desired, and whole pansies.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 195 calories % fat calories: 24 Fat: 6g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 5mg Carbohydrate: 32g Protein: 6g Fiber: 3g Sodium: 699mg

Golden Corn Muffins with Calendula Petals

Makes 12 / Golden, tender little muffins get a subtle, peppery lift from calendula flowers. For extra zest, try adding finely minced red peppers or jalapeños.

1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
3/4 cup unbleached white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 extra-large eggs
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons corn or vegetable oil
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen and thawed
1/4 cup calendula petals

1. Butter a muffin pan and preheat oven to 375°F. In a mixing bowl combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, beat eggs and add milk and oil, blending well. Stir cheese and corn into wet ingredients, mixing well.

2. Pour wet ingredients into dry and blend. Stir calendula petals into batter. Fill muffin tins almost full, dividing batter evenly.

3. Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Let stand for 5 minutes, remove muffins from the pan, and serve warm with or without butter or molasses.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 161 calories % fat calories: 43 Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 3g Cholesterol: 46mg Carbohydrate: 17g Protein: 6g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 213mg

Herbed Cucumber Dip with Borage Blossoms

Makes 3 cups / Serve with crackers, chips, or fresh vegetables. It's also a good condiment with baked or grilled fish or slices of steamed new potato.

1 medium cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 scant teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
3 dashes angostura bitters
Pinch sugar
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 clove garlic, pressed
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill
1-1/3 cups sour cream (light or regular)
2/3 cup plain yogurt (nonfat, low-fat, or regular)
About 20 borage blossoms

1. Finely chop cucumber. In a mixing bowl, combine cucumber with vinegar, soy sauce, bitters, and sugar and season with salt and pepper. Blend well and let stand while preparing garlic and herbs.

2. Add garlic and herbs, toss well, and add sour cream and yogurt. Combine well, cover, and chill at least 30 minutes before serving. Dip can be made several hours ahead. Just before serving, transfer to a pretty bowl and garnish with a circle of borage blossoms.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1/4 cup): Calories: 46 calories % fat calories: 34 Fat: 2g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 5mg Carbohydrate: 6g Protein: 2g Fiber: 0g Sodium: 143mg

Fettuccine with Asparagus, Nasturtiums, and Wild Mushrooms

Serves 6 / Fresh nasturtiums add a bright, peppery flavor to this simple but special dish.

1/2 pound thin asparagus stalks
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion
1 cup sliced wild mushrooms (such as chanterelle, enoki, morel, or shiitake), fresh or dried and reconstituted
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper
1/2 pound fresh fettuccine
20 nasturtiums (cut in half if large)
Grated manchego cheese

1. Trim asparagus stems. Cut stalks into 2-inch segments. If stalks are fairly thick, cut in half lengthwise.

2. In a large skillet, heat butter and oil. Add asparagus, onions, and mushrooms and sauté over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Stir in garlic and white wine and cook 2-4 minutes longer, or until asparagus is bright green. Season with salt and pepper.

3. While asparagus is cooking, cook fresh fettuccine in boiling salted water until al dente, about 1 minute. Drain, reserving 1/2-cup cooking water. In a large bowl, combine pasta with asparagus mixture and cheese. Toss to mix, adding reserved pasta water if needed to keep moist. Stir in nasturtiums and serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 191 calories % fat calories: 24 Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 5mg Carbohydrate: 31g Protein: 6g Fiber: 2g Sodium: 196mg

Drop Scones with Rose Petals and Pistachios

Makes 2 dozen / Serve these buttery treats warm at Sunday brunch, paired with slices of fresh melon and chilled hibiscus tea mixed with sparkling water.

2-1/4 cups unbleached white flour
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2-3 pinches cinnamon
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup shelled pistachios, lightly toasted and coarsely ground
1 cup cream
1 teaspoon rose water
A good handful of rose petals
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon rose jelly, or 1 tablespoon red currant jelly mixed with about 1/2 teaspoon rose water
2 teaspoons water

1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl and blend thoroughly. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Sir in pistachios. Set aside.

2. Stir cream together with rose water. Rinse rose petals, pat dry, and shred finely (there should be about 2 tablespoons). Stir rose petals into cream, then stir liquid ingredients into dry ones to form a soft dough.

3. Drop dough by heaping tablespoonfuls onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake scones for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.

4. Prepare icing while scones are baking: Combine confectioners' sugar, jelly, and water in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Add another teaspoon water if icing seems too thick, keeping in mind that icing will melt a little if applied while scones are warm.

5. Remove scones to a baking rack to cool slightly, then drizzle with icing. They are best served warm, right after baking. If preparing scones in advance, cool completely without icing and store in an airtight container. Wrap them in foil and gently reheat at 325°F for 10-15 minutes. Drizzle icing over them while they are warm.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 124 calories % fat calories: 47 Fat: 7g Saturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 19mg Carbohydrate: 15g Protein: 2g Fiber: 0g Sodium: 116mg

Pizza with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Goat Cheese, and Marjoram or Oregano Flowers

Makes 2 / Marjoram and oregano both belong to the genus Origanum; their flowers taste similar and can be used interchangeably. The flowers of both herbs, like their leaves, are spicy with a sweet perfume.

1 tablespoon active dry yeast
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups unbleached white flour
1/4 cup rye flour
2/3 cup warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large clove garlic, minced
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt
3/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil or reconstituted, cut into 1/4-inch slivers
1 medium onion, quartered lengthwise and sliced thinly
5-1/2 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons marjoram or oregano blossoms
Olive oil

1. To make dough, dissolve yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup warm water. Mix flours in a bowl and make a well in the center. When yeast is foamy, add to well and mix. Let rise about 5 minutes.

2. Gradually stir in 2/3 cup water, adding 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt after half the water is added. Stir well; dough will be a bit sticky.

3. Turn dough onto floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, adding a bit more flour if necessary. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp tea towel, and let rise for 1 - 1-1/2 hours, until doubled in bulk. (Or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight; allow to come to room temperature before proceeding.) Punch dough down and let it rest for 15 minutes.

4. Mix minced garlic and olive oil. Preheat pizza stone or baking pan for 20-30 minutes on oven set at 500°F.

5. Divide dough into two equal parts. Form each into a 9- or 10-inch round on a flat, moveable surface (such as a large, flat cutting board or pizza paddle) dusted with cornmeal. Brush top of dough with garlic-olive oil mixture. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Spread sun-dried tomatoes over dough and cover with onions.

6. Bake one at a time: Slide one pizza onto preheated baking stone or pan and bake for 5 minutes, until crust is puffed around the edge and just starting to turn golden. Remove and spread evenly with half the crumbled goat cheese. Return pizza to oven for 3 minutes, or until cheese begins to melt and bottom crust is done.

7. Remove pizza to cutting board and sprinkle with half the parsley and flowers. Brush edges lightly with olive oil. Repeat for second pizza.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (quarter pizza): Calories: 307 calories % fat calories: 42 Fat: 14g Saturated Fat: 6g Cholesterol: 21mg Carbohydrate: 33g Protein: 11g Fiber: 3g Sodium: 285mg

Mango-Cherry Salsa with Fresh Violas

Makes about 5 cups / This beautiful mixture is simple to make. It adds a wonderful flavor to grilled chicken or pork chops. For an elegant appetizer, serve it over mascarpone cheese alongside petit beurres or water biscuits.

2 cups fresh or frozen and thawed mango
2 cups fresh or frozen and thawed cherries
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1 small serrano chili, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup edible viola petals
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Chop mango and cherries and place in a medium bowl. Add green onions, chili, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil. Stir well to mix. Gently stir in violas. Season with salt and pepper. Chill, covered, for 1 hour. Serve at room temperature. Refrigerate remainder in a tightly covered glass jar.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1/4 cup): Calories: 29 calories % fat calories: 24 Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 6g Protein: 0g Fiber: 1g Sodium: 27mg Lisa Turner is a food writer, chef, and the author of five books on health and nutrition. Recipes for dip, scones, pizza, and corn muffins reprinted with permission from Flowers in the Kitchen by Susan Belsinger (Interweave Press, 1991).