Flowers don’t seem the obvious choice as an ingredient, but they’re worth considering – for their colour, for their scent and especially for their flavour.
Yesterday I tidied up my cookbook shelves and came across a small volume by the incomparable Frances Bissell. The bookmark in The Scented Kitchen, Cooking with Flowers reminded me of a research weekend I spent trying to live on “wild” foods. Our task was to collect enough food in the forest, by the wayside and from meadows to feed our group of seven. Although it was the height of summer we didn’t find an awful lot, but some of it was so pretty (see photo, it’s the one that served as bookmark) we almost forgot how hungry we were. That is, until someone arrived with an ensnared hare, but let’s stay with the flowers for now.
The Scented Kitchen is unusual for a flower cookbook because it has no colour photos at all. Instead, it has B&W pictures and an eclectic mix of highly original, very yummy recipes.
My favourite flowers for cooking – because they’re so pretty and easy to get – are marigolds and nasturtiums, but these are only two of the many edible blossoms that can be used in sweet and savoury dishes. In her book, Bissell, who was The Times’ food writer for many years, uses well-known edible flowers, such as borage, elderflowers, roses and lavender. Among the flowers less often used for cooking she lists carnations, linden flowers, violets, fennel, jasmine and pansies.
Her chapter “Brief and partial history of the scented kitchen” informs readers that while many eighteen-century (and earlier) cooks used flowers abundantly, a hundred years later the tradition was completely forgotten, to be revived only at the beginning of the 20th century. Today many chefs make good use of edible flowers and, on occasion, come up with a delicious addition to the recipe pool.
Preserving the colour and scent of a flower is key to impart a dish with its unique flavour. To this end Bissell gives recipes she calls “blueprints”, such as flower butters, custards and jellies, flower oils and vinegars, sugars and syrups. Besides crystallised flowers she also lists flower vodkas, fritters and even confetti, which she uses as an attractive and surprising addition to chicken stuffing.
Her recipes include soups, such as the intriguingly-named Maltese Widow’s Soup that uses borage flowers, stews like the Jasmine-Flavoured Lobster Stew and other mains, such as Fennel-Braised Meat Rolls, Cherry-Stuffed Quails with Carnation Sauce and Risotto and Spring Vegetables in Elderflower Jelly. Many recipes are for sweets, some of which have lovely names, such as Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool, Spring Violet Cake and Fairy Butter (which is made with orange flower water).
If you’ve never considered cooking with flowers, you might want to give it a try by making a filling for shop-bought meringue nests: Whip half a small bottle of cream with a little icing sugar and a couple of teaspoons of orange flower or rose water* until fluffy, but not too firm. Spoon cream into the nests and decorate with a scattering of marigold or rose petals. Who knows – this might start you on a new cooking adventure.
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