Flowers turn dishes into colorful, edible works of art

“Food that’s beautiful to look at seems to taste better than food that isn’t.”

So says famed chef Emeril Lagasse, who knows presentation is everything in haute cuisine. Visit the trendy restaurants of Malibu or Miami and you’ll be treated with salads and exotic fare glittering with color and fresh textures. This approach to cooking leaves behind the heavy meals of winter and ventures into the garden for sustenance.

We can grow or buy our greens, which can require a mild climate to prevent the delicate leaves from becoming tough and bitter. But as summer rolls along we can explore a whole new source of edibles that have been masquerading as ornamentals for years.

Yes, your flowers may be edible. In fact, that’s what the nouvelle chefs are using this year to make their presentations as bright as a bouquet. Picked just before a meal, the petals of a flower can be stripped to litter a plate like confetti. They can be mixed into a green salad for bright flecks of yellow and blue. Sprinkle over sorbet, homemade ice cream or bright summer cakes to create a festive end to an al fresco meal.

There are some important caveats when these flowers will be treated as edibles. Organically grown plants are the best. Avoid eating flowers from florists, nurseries and garden centers. Beware of roadside flowers; they may be sprayed or contaminated with exhaust. Use only the petals unless they are exclusively a decorative garnish. Consume sparingly at first. Allergy sufferers should be cautious to ensure there is no reaction to the plant.

The best way to get started right now is with annuals. These fast-growing bedding plants are affordable and can be planted in sufficient quantities to allow larger harvests. It can take quite a few flowers to color a dinner-party salad.

Calendula, the pot marigold, enjoys a long association with food because its orange petals were used to color cheddar cheese and as an alternative to expensive saffron. Calendula petals also hold their yellow or orange color when dried. Scatter your extras over an old screen and let them dry for use this winter to accent soups and stews.

Pansies, violets and violas are all closely related. In medieval times, they made whole salads out of viola plants, flowers and onions. The cute viola facelike flowers are an exceptional garnish with the smallest blossoms used whole in salads. They’re quite popular for decorating desserts, particularly for ladies’ luncheons or showers.

Nasturtiums have long been favored in salads and also make exceptional bedding plants due to their pinwheel-shaped leaves. Unlike most edible flowers, which offer little flavor, these blossoms are spicy-flavored and add zest to salads. Nasturtiums grow easily from seeds, making them the most affordable choice.

Here are some less common sources of edible petals that may already be growing in your garden:

Pinks: These cottage-garden perennials offer some of the most detailed petals of all. They are fabulous and decorative as whole-flower garnishes, too.

Rose: Aficionados claim the old rose varieties are the most fragrant and flavorful. If you’re a novice, grow new carefree types like Flower Carpet and Knock Out roses.

Daylily: Dried golden daylily petals are a traditional ingredient in Chinese hot-and-sour soup. The flavor of lighter-colored blossoms is preferred over dark ones.

To venture further into this realm of edible beauty, consult Kathy Wilkinson Barish’s two great books: “Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate” and “Edible Flowers: Desserts & Drinks.”

Discovering new plants with edible flowers will help guide your hand in future summer garden-making. Whether fresh or dried, your culinary creations will become works of art that extend your love of beauty and gardens to every dish you prepare.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of “Weekend Gardening” on DIY Network. Contact her at her Web site www.moplants.com or visit www.diynetwork.com.

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