Go ahead, take a whiff of the rose . . . then chew its pretty head off.
OK, that's drastic, but it's close to what Cathy Wilkinson Barash suggests in "Edible Flowers: Desserts & Drinks" ($16.95, Fulcrum Publishing, 1998) and "Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate" ($24.95, Fulcrum, 1996).
When Barash gets giddy over a blossom, she may wax on about color, form and scent, but full-tilt appreciation comes only after it's between her teeth.
"The beauty and range of tastes flowers can bring are like no other component of a dish," she writes in the new book. "Edible flowers range in flavor from bland to spicy, sweet to piquant . . . the possibilities for using [them] are limited only by your imagination and flavor preferences."
They can end up in salads or mixed in with stews. Seared into steaks or stir-fried with vegetables. Baked up with chicken or roasted with lamb. Turned into candy or found floating face-down in a martini.
But before you harvest that row of perennials or ask the florist for a nibble, you should know a few things.
* First, not all flowers are edible; in fact, some are poisonous (stay away from azalea, calla lily, chinaberry, daffodil, anemone, autumn crocus, hyacinth, marsh marigold and oleander, to name a few). Before indulging, be sure you can identify the flower and know its characteristics by studying Barash's books or others.
* Don't expect to boil up a pound or two of blossoms. Eat flowers in relatively small amounts and always only the petals; pistils and stamens aren't palatable.
* Anyone with hay fever, asthma or allergies shouldn't even think about cooking with them because of the irritating pollen.
* And, as you don't know if chemicals or pesticides have been sprayed, don't eat flowers from florists, nurseries, garden centers or from the side of the road. Use only varieties that you've cultivated, and make sure they were grown organically.
Barash notes that there are nevertheless hundreds of flowers that can be eaten. She recommends starting with "the big 10," a group she considers the tastiest, healthiest and easiest to cook with.
Start with nasturtium (which has a spicy flavor) and move to marigold and sage (herbal), calendula (bitter), pansy and mint (minty), rose (floral), daylily and squash (vegetal) and chives (oniony).
Others are lilac (herbal and perfumey), lavender and elderberry (sweet), dianthus (clove flavor) and dandelion (honey-like).
"These are commonly and easily grown in gardens throughout the country," Barash said. "Even if you do not consider yourself a gardener, you may have several of these flowers growing in your yard already."
You also may have already tasted many of them. A few Southern California restaurants--notably, the dining room at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point--offer entrees and desserts using flowers. Ritz-Carlton chefs don't have to go far; they gather theirs from the hotel's oceanfront gardens.
Barash's recipes, and those from chefs around the country, make up the bulk of her books. Anoosh Shariat, the executive chef at Remington's in Louisville, Ky., offers Nasturtium Fettuccine, flavored with 24 nasturtiums with thyme and chive blossoms (serves four).
Roses are supposedly great for sauces and vinaigrettes and also can be cooked with meats, especially chicken. Jose Gutierrez, executive chef of Chez Philippe at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., cooks up Rose Chicken, with 3 tablespoons of petals (along with graham crackers and various spices) in his frying batter (serves four).
"The slight sweetness of the rose-petal coating complements the succulent chicken [and] can be served either hot or cold," Barash said.
Sound good? Maybe, but the notion of swallowing a rose or pansy gave Natalie Hall some pause. Hall, a Santa Ana mother of two, had just emerged recently from Maggiano's, a trendy Italian restaurant near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, and couldn't imagine putting a flower under her knife and fork.
"I just had a great veal marsala; so tell me, would flowers go well with that?" she asked as her husband, Bill, stood by, just as bemused. "What kind of wine do you order with a flower? I'm not so sure about the whole idea."
Said Bill: "They're nice in our garden, but that's where my enjoying them ends. . . . But I guess you could eat anything if you wanted, [especially] if you were really hungry."
Natalie reconsidered. "Sure, I'd probably try one. I love the way they're so fragrant, so why not? It's an idea you have to get used to, though."
Across the street at a busy Carl's Jr., Frank Hidalgo wasn't as open-minded. The Irvine 19-year-old couldn't see garnishing his hamburger with lettuce, onions and a pile of dandelions. He hooted when told that you not only can eat flowers but that there are books that tell you how to do it.
"You mean [people] are giving [their families] flowers and stuff for dinner?" Hidalgo asked. "That sounds weird to me."
Pal Jason Anderson, 17, also of Irvine, had to agree. "No way my mom's putting that on my plate," he said flatly. "I like them, but I'm sure not gonna eat them."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
1 frying chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1/4 cup rose water
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup graham crackers, finely crushed
3 tablespoons rose petals, finely chopped (dark-colored varieties preferable)
1/8 tsp salt
Place chicken in nonmetallic dish and add rose water. Turn to coat. Cover and marinate in refrigerator for up to 4 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix flour, graham cracker meal, rose petals and salt together in medium-sized bowl. Roll each piece of chicken in flour mixture, then place in a lightly greased, shallow baking pan. Bake the chicken for 35 minutes, or until done.
The slight sweetness of the coating complements the succulent chicken. Delicious hot or cold.
1 pound fettuccine
6 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
20 black olives (preferably Greek style), pitted and cut in half
3/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup thyme blossoms, chopped
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
4 chives blossoms, broken into florets
24 nasturtium flowers, chopped (reserve 4 whole for garnish)
Cook pasta al dente. While pasta is cooking, heat oil and garlic in small, heavy frying pan over very low heat. Don't cook the garlic much; just warm it to release essential oils. Drain pasta and put it in very large bowl. Toss with warm garlic and oil, olives, parsley, chives and chopped flowers. Garnish with nasturtium flowers.