Human beings have, no doubt, tried to eat just about everything on the planet. All you have to do is watch an infant shovel anything within arm's distance into his mouth to know that virtually nothing is safe from our appetites.
Some items, such as oysters and snails, don't have a lot of appeal to the eye, though many people find them delicious. But what could be prettier--or more appealing--than a flower? Surely candy, with its bright colors and sometimes exotic shapes, is trying to imitate nature's unique beauty.
Flowers have long been a favorite of many cultures. Both the Greeks and the Romans used them frequently to flavor and garnish foods, and they were the culinary rage in the Victorian era. For the Dutch during World War II, eating flowers was a necessity: many survived on a diet of boiled tulip bulbs.
Recent years, though, have seen an absence of flowers on the table as part of the meal. But restaurants and bakeries around town seem to be reversing that trend, as petals show up in everything from soups to desserts, from a tiny basil flower floating in an amuse bouche of cucumber veloute at Melisse to a whole orchid sitting atop sugar cookies and chocolate cakes at LA Bread Bakery & Cafe in Los Feliz.
It's not as strange as it sounds. We've all eaten flowers, whether we realize it or not. Artichokes are the flowers of a member of the thistle family, and saffron is the stigma of the crocus flower. Capers are unopened flower buds, as is the top portion of broccoli. Other edible flowers include pansies, orchids, borage, marigolds, carnations, day lilies and snapdragons.
Creative cooks can use edible flowers to introduce a new range of flavors, colors, textures and scents into their cuisine. The flavors found in flowers are generally mild. Basil flowers, for example, have only the subtle essence of the herb, while nasturtiums and arugula flowers have a gentle hint of pepper, and pansies and violas taste like grapes.
But not all flowers, however lovely they may appear, are edible. Potentially poisonous are lilies of the valley, petunias, foxgloves and the recently notorious oleander, among others.
Even among types that can be eaten, it's important to know their origin, as pesticides and other chemicals are used by most commercial flower producers. Any flower intended for human consumption, whether store-bought or home-grown, must be planted with that purpose in mind, according to Joe Barba of West Central Produce, who sells to Staples Center and high-end hotel kitchens, including the Ritz-Carlton.
Edible flowers cost more than others, Barba cautions, but for good reason. "They're greenhouse-grown, all organic, with no pesticides." Once purchased, these flowers should be stored in the refrigerator and tightly wrapped until used.
But they're well worth the money, and they add a new level of aesthetic enjoyment to foods, regardless of the flavors, if any, they contribute.
"We eat edible flowers," Barba says, "because they're beautiful."
LA Bread's Orchid Sugar Cookies
Makes 1 dozen cookies
1 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg (plus 1 extra egg white for brushing)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour
White crystal sugar for sprinkling
12 edible orchids (stems removed)
Cream butter and sugar for two minutes until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Stir in flour until soft dough forms. Chill dough at least two hours. Dust table with flour and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut with heart-shaped 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter. Brush on egg white and place one edible orchid at the center of each cookie. Brush blossom with egg white to affix flower and sprinkle with crystal sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 16 to 20 minutes.
ENTERTAINING, Page 30: West Central Produce, Los Angeles, (213) 629-3600.
Chris Rubin is a frequent contributor to the Calendar section.