April Showers Bring May Flower Sandwiches
Adorn your palate with these lovely mainstays of traditional cooking.
By Leslie Bilderback 05/03/2013
When I was in sixth grade, our class camped out overnight in the Santa Cruz Mountains to learn the basics of outdoor science. It was a memorable trip (as accurate as memories from the ‘70s can be). I discovered deer tracks, a mouse skeleton in owl poo, the intricacies of pine-needle weaving and boys. His height didn’t deter me (most boys that year hovered well below my sightline), because his shoulder-length, naturally highlighted brown hair perfectly framed his rockin’ puka shells.
That was also the trip where I discovered new and interesting plants you could eat. We made dandelion salads, chewed rose hips for their vitamin C and brewed tea from manzanita bark (a fact I enjoy recounting every time I see that shrub. “Oh, please tell me again how you made bark tea in sixth grade!”… said no one). I have always enjoyed cooking with the unusual (ingredients… not people), and weed cuisine is no exception.
I love the look of fresh greenery on my plate, and as the weather warms and the flora erupt, I am inspired to celebrate the season culinarily. Fresh herbs and the newest crop of seasonal vegetables always find their way onto my plate. But green gets boring (sorry, Kermit), and inevitably the sunny hues of a nasturtium flower, lavender bud, rose petal and viola bloom end up in the kitchen too. Not just in a vase. Flowers in vases are so banal.
Flower cookery was quite common until the mid-20th century. Before then, knowing how to produce homemade floral waters with the family still was just practical housewifery. Such waters — extracted from roses, lilacs, violets, orange flowers and the like — made their way into cakes, puddings, jellies and toiletries. Alas, our industrial, computerized, synthetic-food-production megatron has swept the art of flower cookery, like most archaically cool culinary practices, under the linoleum. Luckily, you have me to revive them.
The still is no longer necessary, as many good flower waters are available in most markets (although, as you might expect, I have totally embraced distilling my own and have provided instructions so you can too). Rose water, a Victorian favorite and everyday ingredient in the Middle and Far East, is readily available in bottles and makes an outstanding addition to most things light and sweet. Pound cake, caramel sauce, whipped cream, tea and even rice benefit from a splash of the rose. Orange-flower water, too, makes a lovely addition to all things almond, citrus, peach and even chicken. It is easy enough to find, especially in places that cater to the “mixologist” — when did bartenders get so uppity? — since it is a crucial ingredient in the Ramos Fizz.
Lavender is the “it” floral right now, and it’s in everything from hand sanitizer to cat litter. But it’s much better in a fluffy mashed potato (Try it with purple Peruvian potatoes!) or paired with vanilla in ice cream or a buttery shortbread cookie. But lavender is probably best recognized as a longstanding ingredient of herbes de Provence, sprinkled into your scrambled eggs or over sautéed vegetables or used to season fish, lamb, chicken or… anything.
Nasturtiums are common enough in haute salads, but those living outside the metropolis might be pleasantly surprised by their peppery flavor. They grow on the roadsides here, and I have been known to pull over for an impromptu harvest (being sure to wash off the essence of neighborhood dog). The flower petals are the main draw, but their leaves also make a surprisingly good wrapping for dolmas-style fillings of rice, nuts and herbs. Marigolds are peppery too. Sprinkle their petals into your egg salad, or use as a garnish for vegetable stir-fries.
Borage offers tiny blue star-shaped blossoms with a cucumbery flavor, perfect for summer fruit compotes or for floating in a glass of iced tea. Violas, violets and pansies make nice salad ingredients too, or they can be sugared and dried as edible decorations for your best desserts. (To sugar a flower petal, whip an egg white until frothy, dip in the flower, coat with super-fine sugar, and set aside for an hour or two until crisp and dry.)
The geranium comes in a number of scented varieties and, while its petals can be sprinkled into recipes willy-nilly, it is the leaves that really pack a punch. Infuse them into light oils and vinegars or pack them tightly into jars of sugar to draw out their fragrant oils. Then use the sugar in your tea, dressings or syrups.
The flowering tips in your standard herb garden are worth the wait too. Sage, basil, chives, rosemary and everything in the onion family all have lovely blooming heads that have flavors similar to their herb bodies. And citrus trees offer up fragrant blossoms that can go wherever their juice and zest does.
Flower jelly sounds a little frou-frou, until you spread it on a scone with sweet butter. It’s enough to make the most emotionally stunted, gravel-voiced, spike-emblazoned leather jacket–wearing macho dude swoon. (Warning: This has not actually been tested.) Use as fragrant a flower as you can find (lilac, jasmine, rose), steep it in an amount of boiling water equal to the blooms, and then cool overnight. In the morning, use the water in the jelly recipe above. Then call the teamsters because you now have the makings of the most awesome tea party ever.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, can be found in the kitchen of Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena. She teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.