On a table in an old barn, laid out artfully on paper towels, were stemless flowers. Petals of pinks and purples that faded into yellows and oranges decorated the plain white background.
“These are all different kinds of pansies,” says Jeri Woodhouse, owner of A Taste of the North Fork in Southold and edible flower expert. “Now, today there’s small pansies again, because of the weather. I’ve used these little tiny ones to decorate cupcakes and cakes and crystallize them.” She points to them as she identifies each name.
“There are over 100 edible flowers. I can’t tell you how many I grow. Everything here is something that’s edible,” she says, gesturing to the table in front of us, “and beyond that there’s more.”
Woodhouse has been playing with edible flowers since 2000. “I read an article somewhere, a tiny little article, about eating flowers that intrigued me because I didn’t know anything about it,” she says. “I became more and more interested, so I started growing them. I had them in my garden without even knowing it, then I started trying everything I could. It just became a hobby.” Soon she was wandering out into her back garden nightly to put flowers into whatever she had on the menu that night.
Eventually, it became her business. A Taste of the North Fork turns edible flowers into syrups and concentrates, sells edible flower products at North Fork Flower Farm, and teaches classes at the farm on how to use edible flowers in your own cooking and baking.
Woodhouse picks early in the morning, when the flower is at its best. “They’re fresher in the morning and the bugs haven’t really gotten around,” she says. “I wash them with salt water, because salt water will draw anything out. The hotter it is, the more little tiny black bugs like to get inside flowers. And then I dry them on paper towels.”
Over at KK’s, a family-owned organic farm in Southold, Ira Haspel has been growing and selling edible flowers since 1999. Today the flowers have become a popular addition to the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture boxes.
“We have two categories — sweet and savory,” Haspel says. “Sweet is oregano flowers, kale flowers, mezuna flowers. Then we have the herbs. The fennel flowers, which are in bloom now, have a beautiful licorice, anise taste.”
“A lot of dishes may not have sparkle and color,” he says. “These flowers do. So, it’s part of the eating experience. You eat with your eyes, nose, and mouth, and these fulfill the visual aspect. And they do have a lot of flavor.”
One of local caterer Lauren Lombardi’s most popular items are her edible flower cookies.
“People say they are too pretty to eat,” she says. “They just love them. Everyone always says ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could eat flowers.’ ” By finding simple ways to use them, you can really showcase their flavor and their beauty, Lombardi says. “They are too special to just throw on top of something, so I started baking with them. I think that they should be artfully placed and used thoughtfully.”
Lombardi also uses edible flowers in ice cubes for cocktails, on top of salads to bring color and flavor and as a classic garnish.
Back on the flower farm, Woodhouse points to a small pile of pink petals that came from a fragrant beach rose.
“That flower — I use it in lots of ways,” she says. “I make a rugosa rose jam out of it. That makes fabulous jelly. And if you have leftover wine and you want to make it look interesting and taste differently, throw some of those petals in it. It’ll change the color.”
When it comes down to when to use edible flowers in what way, Woodhouse has one piece of advice. “Taste it, smell it and if you like it, throw it in.”
Jeri Woodhouse’s Edible Flower Advice
- Don’t eat a flower unless you know it is edible
- Only eat organic flowers
- Pick flowers in the morning after the dew has evaporated
- Rinse flowers in salt water then fresh water. Dry on a paper towel
- Remove the stamen and stiles. Most flower petals are the only edible part
- For best results, use flowers as soon as possible
- Flowers can be preserved, frozen, crystallized, dried or made into sugars, oils, vinegars or butters
Lauren Lombardi’s Edible Flower Shortbread Cookies
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
- 3 sticks unsalted butter – soft/room temperature
- 1 1/3 cup organic granulated sugar – plus more for sprinkling
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt or fine kosher salt
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons high quality vanilla
- 4 cups all purpose flour
- Edible flowers: pansy, viola, nasturtium, herbs
- Parchment paper
- Preheat oven to 355 degrees
- Place the softened butter, sugar and salt in a bowl and mix until all ingredients combine. Add egg yolks one at a time, continue mixing.
- Add vanilla and mix
- Transfer to standing mixing bowl and carefully add flour – one cup at a time – mix on low until thoroughly combined
- Place dough on top of parchment paper and fold paper on top. Roll out dough underneath parchment paper until about 1/2 inch thick
- Cut out cookie shapes – preferably round – and place leftover dough to the side for next batch of cookies. Add flowers and herbs to center of cookies. Cover with parchment paper again. Lightly roll to press flowers down. Refrigerate for 30 minutes
- Transfer cookies to baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes until edges are just a touch golden, not more. Remove from oven and sprinkle with granulated sugar