Q: How about the use of fresh flowers in cooking? Maybe some of the more exotic flowers like borage, calendula, lilac, dianthus, rose petals, hollyhock and tulips. Can you go to a florist to buy flowers you want to cook with or would you have to buy dried flowers instead or foraging? Desserts as well as savory preparations.
—Allison Gibbons, Portland, Ore.
A: Great question for spring! When I think edible flowers I tend to go to chive flowers, nasturtium blossoms and the blooms found on many herbs — you know, the usual suspects. So I checked in with Miche Bacher, the Lafayette, Colo.-based author of "Cooking with Flowers," about your list — and she knows them all well.
"Tulips are fabulous,'' she said, suggesting a spin on a 1970s or 1980s cocktail party by topping tulip petals with a blue cheese and walnut paste. Her book also has a recipe for tulip martinis made with a tulip-infused vodka.
"How fun is that?" Bacher says of the martini, adding that a cocktail party with drinks and nibbles made with edible flowers might be the best way to introduce people to the concept.
But, before we get into flower fun, let's talk seriously about food safety.
"Don't eat a flower unless you're sure it's 100 percent edible. And always double check," Bacher says. Search out reputable sources, she adds, don't just rely on what you find on any old blog — check credentials and expertise. Possible resources for identifying edible flowers include botanical gardens, cooperative extension services, garden centers, herb shops, guide books and cookbooks.
Bacher said commercial sources can use various sprays on their flowers. "Avoid any bouquets or single stems for sale in the supermarket or florist shop unless they are labeled USDA organic for culinary use,'' she writes in her book. USDA stands for United States Department of Agriculture. She recommends using only organic flowers from organic farms, organic grocery stores or your garden. Be smart when foraging; make sure the plants haven't been sprayed with anything or are growing close to the roadside, she adds.
The Web site for the Chicago Botanic Garden has a section on edible plants with similar cautions (chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/faq/edible_flowers). on edible plants with similar cautions. "Use only flowers you have grown yourself or ones sold as edible in the produce section of stores," the site reads.
Bacher also recommends starting slowly when introducing flowers to your diet. Folks with hay fever, asthma and allergies need to be particularly cautious, she writers, because they may have a flower allergy as well.
Where to begin your exploration of edible flowers?
"A few popular suggestions to start you on your way include roses, marigolds, lavender, pansies, violets, apple or crab apple blossoms, geraniums (Pelargonium, that is), calendulas, tulips, tuberous begonias, honeysuckle, nasturtiums, lilacs, dianthus and certainly the flowers of all herbs," the Chicago Botanic Garden's Web site reads. "Pick the flowers early in the morning, wash the blossoms and dry them thoroughly on paper towels. Decorate hot dishes at the last minute since steam will wilt the flowers quickly. Cold or frozen dishes may be decorated ahead of time."
Bacher recommends nasturtiums and pansies for those new to edible flowers. Nasturtiums are hearty and have an appealing spiciness, she says, while the petals of pansies can be pureed with sugar to create colorful simple syrups for cocktails and cooking.
As for your list of flowers, Bacher say hollyhocks are bland, "like eating iceberg lettuce." Borage has a cucumber flavor. Calendula is a bit bitter but sports a wonderful yellow color. The flavor of lilacs vary by color, deep purple blooms are less sweet than white blossoms, she says. Don't use too much or "it will be like licking the inside of your grandmother's neck,'' Bacher cautions. Dianthus is spicy and a bit clove-like, while rose petals should taste the way they smell. Tulips, she notes in her book, have a "subtle lettuce-cucumber" flavor.
Her book offers flowers in a variety of culinary presentations, from flavored vodkas and vinegars to cakes, pastas, salads, tarts and cookies. Below is a recipe for goat cheese and nasturtium ice cream from her book. I have not tested it yet but Bacher describes it in her book as a dessert that "treads the line between sweet and savory."
Bacher co-founded Mali B Sweets, a "custom confectionary studio" in Greenport, N.Y. The physical store is closed but there is an online shop (malibsweets.com) whose wares include a line of edible floral chocolates.
Goat cheese nasturtium ice cream
Makes: About 2 quarts
Use your ice cream maker to create this dessert from Miche Bacher's "Cooking with Flowers" cookbook. "Fresh, soft goat cheese is ideal for making ice cream," she writes.
1 cup goat cheese
1 1/2 cups milk
2/3 cup sugar, divided
6 egg yolks
Pinch sea salt
1/3 cup nasturtium flowers, finely chopped
1.Put goat cheese in a large (3-quart) heatproof container that has a lid.
2.In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm milk and stir in half the sugar. Simmer until sugar dissolves. Meanwhile, whisk yolks with the remaining sugar and salt in a heatproof bowl. When the milk has absorbed all the sugar — but before it comes to a boil — begin to temper your eggs by slowly pouring half the warm milk mixture over the yolk mixture while whisking vigorously. Then slowly pour the egg-milk mixture back into the saucepan, whisking vigorously. Heat mixture until it coats the back of a spoon and the temperature reaches 165 degrees on a candy thermometer.
3.Slowly pour mixture over goat cheese, whisking to fully dissolve and incorporate it. Fold in chopped flowers and chill mixture for at least 4 hours and up to overnight. Freeze in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Let ice cream sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes before serving.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: email@example.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.