Using Flower Power for Extra Spice in Meals

Times Staff Writer

Question: Flowers make beautiful garnishes for food that I've seen done in fine restaurants. I've also seen them included in salads but I couldn't identify the kind used. What I would like to have is a listing of flowers that can be safely used with food whether as a garnish or as edible. Can you recommend a book on this subject?

Answer: An excellent source of information on edible flowers is Denise Diamond's book called "Living With the Flowers (Quill, N.Y.: $11.95). Aside from the list of edible flowers in a chapter called Natural Flower Foods, the book includes recipes for teas, punch, sauces, salads, pies and other desserts, using the flowers. (Other chapters deal with gardening, creative craft, flower alchemy, aromatherapy, etc.)

Diamond cautions against using chemically treated flowers and those growing next to dusty or busy roadways. She said they should be consumed in small amounts as they cause allergic reactions in some people. "If you are, (think you might be allergic) try rubbing an edible flower or herb that you have not eaten before on your wrist. If your skin reacts badly to it, do not eat it," she said.

Among the most commonly used are herb flowers. In the savory herb category the book lists flowers such as basil, chamomile, chives (the flowering chives are exceptionally pretty and sturdy), coriander, dill, fennel, garlic chives, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mustard, nasturtium, oregano, rosemary, sage, sweet marjoram, sweet woodruff and thyme.

One of the oldest and most common edible herb flowers is nasturtium, with smooth, bright orange and yellow petals that have a sweetish spicy taste. Sage has velvety purple blooms, dill is bright yellow and feathery, while thyme has small pink blossoms that are pretty in soups. Yellow mustard flowers are hot and spicy-sweet. Pink and purple onion and chive blossoms can be mixed in salads or grains.

Aside from the savory herbs other mild flowering herbs include borage, calendula, cattail, chickweed, red clover, hawthorn, hibiscus, passionflower, safflower and salad burnet. Some although pretty, tend to be slightly bitter, like chicory, dandelion and yarrow.

On the sweet and fragrant side, there are acacia flowers, apple blossom, carnation (use the smaller pinks, avoid hothouse types), day lily, geranium, jasmine (avoid poisonous Carolina jessamine), lemon blossom, lemon geranium, lilac, orange blossom, peppermint geranium, petunia, plum blossom, rose, rose geranium and violet.

Mild flowers that add delicious nectar to foods include cowslip, gladiolus, hollyhock, pansy, peony, poppy petals (don't use opium poppy), primrose, sunflower, squash blossoms, thistle, tulip and viola. Chrysanthemum and daisies may also be used but more for garnish as they have a slightly bitter taste. And don't forget the flowers of some common vegetable greens such bok choy and broccoli.

Q: I'd like to know more about the monkfish, which caught my attention in the supermarket fish case. All that the store attendant could tell me was that it tasted somewhat like lobster. What does the whole fish look like? The steaks were long and thick with some red streaking on the side. How are they prepared?

A: A member of the shark family, monkfish is a deep-water fish landed in the North East. It is another name for anglerfish ( Lophius americanus ), lotte de mer in French, bellyfish, goosefish, all-mouth monkfish, frogfish or sea devil. In Ruth A. Spear's book "Cooking Fish and Shellfish" (Ballantine Cookbook: $4.95, paperback) she describes the monkfish as grotesque with a ferocious-looking head. She writes, "Its habit is to settle in a depression on the sea bottom and 'angle' with a rod-like appendage on its head (actually a part of the dorsal fin), thus attracting small fish to its gaping and ready mouth."

Firm in texture, monkfish is sweet and delicious with a lobster-like taste. According to Spear, a French chef told her that when the fish is poached and masked with a good mayonnaise or chaud - froid , you can't tell the difference between it and lobster. Monkfish is suitable for poaching, sauteing, baking, and broiling (with frequent basting).

It may be used as a substitute for scallops or any recipe calling for firm white fish, also for recipes for fish en brochette. Many cooks like it for bouillabaisse and paella. Almost any type of sauce, particularly a creamy sauce, will complement monkfish.

Address questions on food preparation to You Asked About, Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. Personal replies cannot be given.

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