To try Tejal's recipe for cucumbers in a simple marigold-flavored dressing, click here.
It's a suitable cliché: my heart sinks when I see one of those sad purple orchids on a dessert. No matter that the orchid is edible, technically. If it's fresh, the thick petals crunch like insect legs, releasing a little bittersweet juice. If it's not fresh, the creases brown. And if it's not supposed to be eaten at all, why put it on the plate? As a child I loved orchid garnishes, keeping them in my grubby little palms after dinner, until they wilted. But only one orchid out of the 20,000 species serves a real culinary purpose—the one from which we harvest vanilla beans. The rest are useless.
Orchids, which are expensive to grow, aren't as popular as they used to be (though I still find them under the odd room service breakfast dome and on flourless chocolate cakes dusted with icing sugar), but tastier edible flowers are on restaurant menus as an integrated parts of dishes, rather than as afterthoughts. In his Alinea cookbook, Grant Achatz uses nasturtium leaves and flowers in a beautiful clam dish. And pansies are often at markets and grocery stores, though I wonder what cooks do with them at home.
The way the food media covers ingredient trends, you'd think we'd just discovered we could eat flowers. Of course, we haven't. We've probably been eating flowers for as long as we've been gathering berries. And we've definitely made our share of mistakes, popping poisonous, psychotropic, seizure-inducing blossoms until we figured out which ones to avoid (most of them).
Marigolds are on the safe list. They've been part of our culinary tradition for thousands of years, but when I received my CSA share this week and it included a few golden pompoms, I had absolutely no idea what to do with them.
When familiar herbs flower, their blossoms are familiar smelling and tasting. They're small, not intimidating at all, and can usually stand in where you'd use the leaves. But these marigolds were huge, fluffy, and had a very powerful smell. A smell that said, you don't really want to eat me. (Coincidentally, gardeners plant certain varieties of marigolds to control pests.)
I put the stems in water on the dining table, where they sat for a couple of days as I looked through recipes—none of which seemed appealing and all of which treated the flower like some kind of magical pagan talisman, praising its medicinal properties. One recipe repeatedly referred to the flower as "nature's sunshine," which you don't have to think about for very long to find silly.
The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery , by Leona Woodring Smith, happens to have a great little chapter on marigolds. First published in 1973, just before the 1980s flower garnishing trend took off, the book includes flower mythology, ritual, and Emily Dickinson quotes alongside completely practical cooking tips. Marigolds are eaten as petals or leaves, raw or blanched, fresh or dry, sweet or savory.
To prepare marigolds: Pull entire petals from the stem, and as you hold them firmly in your hand, with scissors cut off the white (or pale greenish) "heels," as this could give a bitter taste if not removed.
Each flower chapter—carnation, gardenia, tulip, clover—has several accompanying recipes. And they're not all for making wines or syrups. The marigold party sticks recipe is essentially a classic American cheese twist made extra orange with the power of marigolds (they're so good at that they're sometimes dried and ground to make imitation saffron powder). And while the marigold cheese soup sounded delicious too—one of those old school vegetable soups enriched with dark chicken stock, cream, and sherry—it's just not the right weather for cheese soup, is it?
So I made Smith's marigold cucumbers: cold sliced cucumbers flavored with raw petals in a sharp, simple dressing.
The thin petals didn't bruise, and once the heels were trimmed, they were just the right size to add to the salad. The trimmed marigold tastes much milder than the flower smells, of a lush tropical garden, herbaceous and pleasantly bitter. Truthfully, I'm not sure the neon petals are that much tastier than orchids but the texture is much nicer and at least they're treated like a proper ingredient, not just a cake topper. At least they won't kill you.