Flowers can be more than just a table decoration or a garnish. Edible flowers add flavor and color to dishes from cookies to cornbread. Miche Bacher, author of Cooking with Flowers, spills the dirt.
Pati Jinich: How did you get started cooking and eating flowers?
Miche Bacher: I first started cooking and eating flowers when I was studying herbs native to America. I realized that some of the flowers that I passed by every day and loved, I could actually use as medicine and then subsequently use as food. I went to a dinner party not so long after that where there were flowers in my salad and I thought, "No, really?" It just opened the door for me of perception of how I could see flowers.
PJ: What we can do with a flower such as calendula?
MB: Calendula has a little bit of bitterness and a little bit of spice -- pepper -- in it. It's one of those flowers that works tremendously well in sweet and savory applications. It pairs so well with eggs that you can throw it into any omelette, quiche or anything that you're making. In fact, farmers use calendula to feed to their chickens to make their yolks even more yellow.
Another thing that you can do with calendula is pair it with corn. I have a cornbread recipe in my book that was adapted from a dear friend of mine. I couldn't believe how well the corn and the calendula matched and complemented each other, the sweet and spicy flavors.
PJ: Is calendula the same as a marigold?
MB: It is sometimes called pot marigold, but it is not the same as the marigold that you would use to keep the pests away from your garden. It is a different variety.
PJ: In your book you have all these chapters that describe so many of the flowers that you can eat. If I realize that my neighbor has some beautiful roses or I see those roses in my grocery store, can I just grab them and start munching on them? Do you have some guidelines?
MB: We have lots of guidelines. If you see roses in your grocery store, bring them home and put them in a vase, but do not eat them. If your neighbor is growing them, certainly ask your neighbor if they are spraying them. Most flowers that come from the grocery store or from the florist have been sprayed with pesticides, fungicides and preservatives. If your neighbor is willing to give up their flowers, you might want to know how they are growing them as well -- if they have used anything that's not safe for you to consume.
PJ: You mentioned that there are some flowers that are bad for you -- that are poisonous?
MB: There are a number of flowers that are toxic, so you really want to be certain of what you're eating. If you don't know, you can go to gardenguides.com or homecooking.about.com and you can see there are lists of poisonous and toxic plants.
[Ed. note: Here is one chart that lists edible flowers. Some flowers can be consumed in their entirety, while only the petals are edible on others. People with allergies should use caution. This chart lists common plants and flowers that are poisonous. Bottom line: Know what you are eating.]
PJ: Another thing that made me curious is flowers' symbolic nature. You can use them to send messages to people. If I love you, I may give you cookies with roses. If I hate you, what do I give you?
MB: I hope that you would give me elder flower cookies and show me some compassion!
In the language of the Victorian era, flowers had meanings. People would give each other posies, bunches of flowers or even a single blossom to indicate and represent the feelings that they might have for them. If you were feeling compassionate toward somebody, you might give them a bit of elder flower. If you were patriotic about your country like Thomas Jefferson, you might grow tons and tons of nasturtium in your yard.
PJ: That is beautiful and such a nice space in this era of so much communication. You can just cook something, give it to somebody and you're giving them a message right there and then.
MB: We imbue all of our own feelings when we're cooking. When we cook something for somebody we love, we're always putting our emotion in it. I think if you layer in a flower that also says what you're feeling, then you have this double meaning and the message behind it grows even bigger.