DIARY: Flower petals can give a great lift to our food, whether used purely decoratively or to enhance the flavour of the dish, as long as they are used judiciously and not just to enhance the chef’s ego.
RECIPE: Curried carrot soup.
Ever since coming across tiny flower petals in bags of micro greens at farmers’ markets while shooting the television series Market to Table, I’ve been sprinkling petals on salads and soups somewhat indiscriminately. Liz Foers who supplies several fashionable restos in Toronto from her Essa Seedlings greenhouses, and her stall at The Artscape Wychwood Barns Stop Farmers’ Market, is a great proponent of both flowers and micro greens. She grew pots of each for the set of our second season and Chef Dan Frenette managed to find a use for them on almost every recipe. In my own visits to restaurants I’ve noticed a delightful increase in the addition of flower petals to dishes, but I wondered where this all started.
My first clue came in one of Tanya Gold‘s eviscerating food columns in a December issue of The Spectator. She writes about Ollie Dabbous: “He was the first man to sprinkle flowers on plates of food, and the only one you did not want to punch in the face.” I wouldn’t want Tanya punching me in the face, but it did seem a bit of an extreme reaction to his new menu at Henrietta. “You can’t get a table at Ollie Dabbous’ restaurant until this time next year, but the rock-star chef hasn’t had his head turned by success; all he cares about is how many mint leaves should go into the perfect endive salad (16, if you were wondering),” wrote Sasha Slater in London’s Evening Standard, when he burst onto the scene a few years ago, opening and closing smart restos with gay abandon.
In the more pastoral scenery, and calmer culinary atmosphere, where Derbyshire meets Yorkshire, I have a long chat with Tessa Bramley, owner and chef of The Old Vicarage just outside Sheffield, about the use of flowers on food. She was one of the first Michelin-starred women chefs in the UK and has run this place brilliantly for 30 years. I took no notes and the bubbly flowed freely so I had to write her recently and ask what she’d said. It could have been embarrassing, but she sent me back a charming and thoughtful note.
“I can’t remember what I said,” she replies, “But I feel quite strongly that the use of flowers or petals should be appropriate to the dish and used discreetly. I disapprove of indiscriminate scattering of flowers. Many edible flowers taste of nothing and are therefore solely decorative and ego boosting to chefs! Indeed many which are used because they are pretty are actually poisonous, so, as with fungi, you need to research this subject and take due care.
“However, herbal flowers do taste of the herb itself and I use them as a jog to the mind to suggest what flavours you are looking for in a dish, for example a tiny rosemary flower topping a slice of lamb fillet is a subtle hint that the lamb has been cooked over rosemary which will have infused the meat with it’s flavour. Thyme flowers scattered in an apple jelly to be served with game will remind you that the grouse eats wild thyme and this will have flavoured the meat. Borage tastes of cucumber and can be used to top a summery starter of cucumber terrine.* The list is endless.
“On another note, some tiny edible flowers can be used decoratively in desserts by sugaring them and using them to enhance the dish. For example, at The Old Vicarage we use sugared sweet violets with chocolate desserts, sweet woodruff to make ice cream, elderflowers to decorate strawberry soufflés, sweet cicely (sweet chervil) with rhubarb. The key is subtlety. There is no place for large flowers unless they are stuffed, such as risotto stuffed courgette flowers or small cream cheese and chive stuffed nasturtium flowers in a salad. Another thing which chefs often forget is that the stems and calyx (or sepals) are not edible and must be removed first. I’ll now climb off my hobbyhorse and shut up!”
Words to take note of as I explore the world of edible flowers.
First, a list of flower petals which are edible: carnations, hibiscus, impatiens, lavender, nasturtium, pansy, rose, squash, sunflowers, pumpkin, violets and zucchini. I buy my flowers from organic growers at farmers’ markets, or grow them myself in summer, which should be safe from pesticides, so using ones from a florist shop or gathered from the roadside is probably not a good idea. Petals will keep fresh, wrapped in a moist paper towel in a sealed container, in the fridge for about a week. A dip in ice water will usually revive limp ones.
Regardless of the decor vs. taste opinions, I have used tiny petal pieces with great visual effect on soups.
Even if the flowers come from greenhouses at this time of year, farmers’ markets are brimming with vegetables which store well in the modern equivalent of root cellars. First among these must be bright orange carrots and I buy a bundle from one of my favourite stalls at the St. Lawrence Farmers’ Market. I’m making a really good heart-warming potage** that has been a favourite for years.
My curried carrot soup, which I published in Market to Table: The Cookbook, now available on Amazon, i-Tunes and Lulu.com, appears here on Gentleman’s Portion for the very first time. How it hid in draft form at the back of a long list of recipes, I can’t imagine. Enjoy the recipe below. And note the decorative petals, which add nothing nutritious or tasty, but seem to lift the flavour. As it is made with ginger, if I had bright pink ginger flower petals to hand I would use them instead.
CURRIED CARROT SOUP
- 1 1/2 lb / 680 g carrots, peeled and chopped
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 TBSP vegetable oil
- 1 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1/4 cup grated fresh ginger (or less)
- 3 cups stock (vegetable, chicken or turkey) (or more)
- Sea salt to taste
- Edible flowers for garnish (optional)
- Wash, peel and chop the carrots into small pieces. Peel the fresh ginger and grate coarsely. Peel and finely chop the onion.
- Soften the onions in hot oil, add curry powder, turmeric and garlic powder, stir in well until the powders are well integrated. Add carrots and ginger and coat with oil and onions mixture.
- Pour in the stock and simmer for 20 mins, or whenever the carrots are tender. Let it cool for a few minutes and then dump as much as you can into a blender (don’t fill it to the top or you will be decorating the kitchen). Blend so the mixture is pureed and smooth. Do in two batches if you need to.
- Return to the pot and reheat when needed. Test for seasoning before serving. Add more stock if it ends up too thick.
PS: This is my last article for 2017 and concludes a very successful fifth year of continuous publication, at least one per week. And as it is posted on Christmas Day, I’ll take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very happy holiday season.
NOTES: *Tessa’s recipe for cucumber terrine includes: Hendricks and tonic marinated cucumber, water melon and radish with Jersey Royal potato and Gruyere cheese straws. I can hardly wait for my next visit. **Potages are a category of soups that are inherently thick, or which thicken naturally during cooking, such as potato soups. ***The tulips on our Market to Table set (photo 1) were purely decorative and were not used in cooking. Most flowers from bulbs are not edible.
Categories: Simply food