The next time you're looking for a way to add color and extra excitement to your dinner table, serve flowers. It's beautiful, mildly decadent, different and delicious; and you'll be following the lead of the Chinese, the Persians and the Aztecs.
After all, if, as the old saying goes, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, why not use flowers to reach the soul by the same route?
Start on the easy ones. Toss bright nasturtiums across the top of a green salad, and it will look like a garden, or use some to decorate open-faced sandwiches. They have a peppery taste, something like watercress, and they can be eaten in the same ways, but they make a more colorful splash.
Roses are richer and sweeter, and their culinary history is more impressive. Roses have been food for royalty. They've flavored cakes and brandies been candied, made into jam, drops, creams and honey.You can add rose petals to fruit or vegetable salads -- just be sure they're clean, and not sprayed. Or you can blend them with milk and honey for an Indian drink of great delight.
Rose petals are exquisite layered with whipped cream in cakes, crepes or creampuffs, or piled into parfaits with sweet fruits. For an extra kick, flavor the cream with rose water or rose brandy. Rose brandy is easy: Pack the petals into a jar and fill it with brandy. Strain it, and replace the petals each day until the flavor is strong enough.
Squash blossoms are heartier and more suited to main dishes. Take the male blossoms when they're open in the morning, wash them, drain and refrigerate them until you're ready to cook. They're delicious just battered and fried, but better if you stuff each blossom with a little surprise -- a piece of cheese, an olive -- and then fold in the ends, batter and fry. I like them better than the squash itself.
Marigolds can add a distinctive taste to either main courses or desserts. You can use marigold petals instead of saffron (another flower spice made from the pistils of crocuses) and use them to color rice or add rich flavor and color to soup. Try some in a salad, or blend a cup of petals with a pint of milk. Add three beaten egg yolks and honey and spice to taste. Pour the mixture into custard cups and bake, in a pan of water, at 350 degrees, until the custard sets.
Day lily flowers are an important ingredient in Japanese cuisine. The fully opened flowers can be use to thicken soups, while the unopened buds can be steamed and served like green beans, or stirfried with other vegetables.
Violets are tasty, too, and the leaves and flowers are exceptionally high in vitamin C. Add both t salads, or scramble them with eggs. For a heavenly dessert, mix sliced peaches with violets and layer them with lightly sweetened whipped cream.
Sunflowers have edible seed, but, in times past, the young, unopened buds were also harvested, boiled, dressed and eaten as a vegetable, which was called "poor man's artichoke."
Herb flowers taste like the herbs and can be used the same ways, but they're prettier. Blue chive flowers have long been used in omelets. Tiny basil flowers make a nice garnish for Italian salads. Borage fowers with their cucumber flavor, can be eaten in salads or floated in summer drinks.
The list of edible flowers is long and lovely. It includes carnations, chrysanthemums, elder blossoms, graniums, hollyhocks, lilacs, mignonette, pansies, peonies, snapdragons, wisteria and all kinds of fruit blossoms.
A few you'd be wise to avoid are Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which most country kids can tell you tastes like a pile of hot pins; rhododendrons, which could contain poison alkaloids; and flowers like wild orchids which are so rare and beautiful it seems almost a crime to eat them.