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A Flowering Cuisine

A Flowering Cuisine

Broccoli (Photo: woodleywonderworks, CC BY 2.0)

Tomatoes are a fruit. Well, OK—but we’d like our other food definitions to remain firm. Broccoli and cauliflower are vegetables, clearly. Cloves and saffron are spices. Chamomile is a tea. Some things are only sort-of foods: you might nibble on sugared rose petals, or eat nasturtiums sprinkled on a salad, but they’re not really foods—they’re flowers. Flowers that you eat.

But leave your broccoli in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer an extra week and the tight green head will turn a fuzzy yellow. If you look closely at the fuzziness, you’ll see, under your hand lens, a field of tiny yellow petals. Broccoli, that oh-so-definitely-a-vegetable, is actually a big bouquet of flowers. Cauliflower, the same—another head of tiny flowers. (Or proto-flower tissue, which is why a neglected head of cauliflower won’t blossom like broccoli.)

It turns out that lots of food is flowers. Direct your hand lens onto some whole cloves: atop each stem, centered on four spikey sepals, is a small, round flower bud. Dissect it carefully and you can make out the dark, dried petals. Saffron, that costliest of spices, is also a flower. Or a teeny, tiny part of a flower: each red strand is just the stigma, or female part, of the saffron crocus. The stigmas are hand-picked from the center of each blossom, and it takes nearly 5,000 flowers to make a single ounce of the spice.

Saffron crocus (Photo: KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0)

If you drink chamomile tea, you’re basically drinking daisies. Eat capers and you’re chomping pickled flower buds. And of course, each tough, gray-green and spikey artichoke is a blossom in waiting. Left on the plant, the leaves fold back and the choke emerges as a purple pom-pom, each strand itself a tiny flower. An artichoke is a queen-sized thistle—an unlikely treat, but with a delectable heart among the thorns.

Artichoke (Photo: ChildofMidnight, CC BY-SA 3.0)

More intuitively appetizing are the aromatic and colorful flower petals that have long been added to food and drink for their color and perfume: rose, lavender, lilac, jasmine, citrus blossoms; the menu of edible petals is nearly endless.

This Thursday, at the Exploratorium’s latest Pairings program, mixologists will have a selection of such blossoms on hand to create flower-infused drinks. In addition, the event will serve and explore a variety of foods that are flowers—and also maybe vegetables. Come prepared to embrace the blossoming botany of cuisine.

Nasturtiums (Photo: Art Siegel, CC BY-NC 2.0)