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Edible flowers have been used for culinary purposes for centuries, but have fallen out of fashion recently. Italians especially have always used flowers in their cooking, from rose and orange blossom water to fried zucchini flowers. The Ancient Romans were particularly known for their affinity for flowers; they often dined on salads of dandelions and violets.
We’re happy to report that edible flowers are back, and are popping up all over our Instagram feeds. There are many different types of flowers and blossoms to cook with, and many different ways to prepare them, but one constant is that they typically have light, botanic, and herbaceous flavors. Since their taste is so delicate, edible flowers are often prepared simply, or used as a garnish. However they are prepared, blossoms of all types are sure to please both the eyes and the stomach.
Rose is one of the most classic edible flowers. The petals are often turned into a water or a syrup and used to flavor all sorts of desserts, from gelato to cake. They are also often dried and made into a beautiful pink tea. It might sound strange to eat roses, but they actually belong to the same family as plums, apricots, and almonds. The flavor of rose, while delicate, can also be overpowering. However rose is used, it is typically used sparingly, to avoid a “soap-y” flavor.
Lavender isn’t a typical Italian flavor, but it is sometimes used to flavor gelato. An Italian liqueur, called Rosolio di bergamotto, includes lavender, as well as many other types of flowers and citrus to get its distinctive flavor.
Orange blossoms are used in much the same way that roses are used; which is to say that they are typically turned into either a water or syrup and used to flavor desserts. Orange blossoms are a crucial part of “acqua di millefiori,” or water of a thousand flowers, which is used to flavor the Neapolitan pastiera pie.
Elderflowers are known for their delicious, very floral flavor, as well as their health properties. Elderflower is often used to treat a cough or a cold. It is also an important seasoning in Sicilian vastedda cu sammucu, a sort of focaccia that uses elderflower, or sambuco, as a flavoring (fennel pollen can also be used).
Dandelion flowers, or fiori di tarassaco, are edible and are sometimes breaded and fried in Italian cuisine. Since dandelions are abundant in just about any field, they are very easy to forage (just make sure you wash them well). Dandelion greens are also edible, and are delicious sauteed in olive oil and served with ricotta. The leaves of the dandelion flower are also sometimes used to make risotto!
Zucchini blossoms are one of the most well-known edible flowers. They are most commonly eaten battered and fried, often stuffed with a piece of mozzarella and an anchovy fillet. They are also sometimes stuffed with ricotta, which is delicious. Zucchini blossoms make appearances with pasta, as part of a sauce. They are only available during zucchini season, and the blossoms should be picked first thing in the morning.
Whether they’re used in sweet or savory preparations, cooking with flowers provides delicious and unique flavors (as well as a touch of playfulness) to your meals.
Julia Terranova is a Brooklyn born, Italian-American student with a love of Rome and all things Italy. She spends her time cooking for friends and reading as many cookbooks as she can find.