Making a life off of your land is nothing short of one big adventure. People who are serious about it are the committed type. The dedicated type. The stubborn type. Homesteaders will try anything to make it work, and folks who’ve been at it a while have stories and scars to attest to the fact that they have tried everything in their pursuit of the simple life.
A homesteader looks at the basics: food, shelter, and water as necessities that can be foraged, built, and stored rather than purchased. In this homesteader’s experience, fewer vegetables are wasted when they were grown by sweat on the brow and soil-stained knees. Every part of the pig gets used with you have to grow, kill, and butcher it yourself.
It is this functionality and efficiency that appeals to the type of person who dreams of a life separate from society’s norms. And it is a special type of person who manages to find true beauty in such a way of living. Not everyone can appreciate beauty. It’s not an important quality to everyone. For some, competency is enough. I’m not that person, beauty is important to me.
I’m confronted by a small lake and national forest outside the window behind my laptop as I write this now. There’s an orchid on my desk. And a stained glass lamp. I design my garden with aesthetics in mind as much as efficiency. It helps that vegetables grow in such beautiful colors and interesting shapes, of course. What beauty really inspires me though is the illuminating brilliance of flowering blossoms. And in order to spend my valuable, limited time cultivating these stimulating blooms, I had to find a use for them other than just “pretty” and “good for pollination.”
How about, “edible?” That quality is pretty tough to argue with, even for a rough-around-the-edges country-man who doesn’t find beauty compelling and prefers function above all. My country-man, in particular, is a big fan of foraging. He likes mushroom hunting; I can’t help myself from picking flowers when we go. I love finding mushrooms, too, but morels aren’t really as pretty as they are tasty.
What’s pretty as well as tasty is a bed of Nasturtium, not to mention nutritious. On the efficiency scale, they’re a ten. The whole plant is edible. It is also loaded with vitamin C and iron. As for flavor, think spicy, like Arugula. The seeds can even be a substitute for black pepper when dried and ground, that’s how spicy. These gem colored beauties are high in Vitamin C and antioxidants. Nasturtium comes to us all the way from the Peruvian Andes and was first valued as a food product in the ancient orient where the petals and buds were consumed raw and used to make tea.
The most common variety is Empress of India, though there are over one hundred to choose from. Some types climb upwards of 15 feet, though most will stay closer to the ground, growing not more than ten or twelve inches. If you intend to eat Nasturtium, steer clear of blooms purchased from a florist or nursery, those plants have most likely been treated with chemicals you shouldn’t ingest. By growing them yourself you can be sure you’re getting the valuable phenolic compound, Anthocyanin (otherwise found in blueberries and red cabbage). This phenol helps neutralize damaging free radicals and is great for protecting you from cardiovascular disease and cancer.
If you add Nasturtium to your salad, throw them in after your vinaigrette, to prevent wilting. If you can’t eat them fresh, try pickling the buds to use as an alternative to capers. Your other option is saving and drying the seeds to add in with your standard old peppercorns in your pepper grinder.
Put down the weed-killer. Dandelions are among the most nutritionally dense green foods you may ever consume. Full of potassium, and a strong diuretic, these yellow gems are wonderful for those suffering from high blood pressure. They are also useful in detoxifying the liver and blood and have been valued by herbalist for easing the strain of arthritis and eczema. Also good for your eyes (apart from just being easy on the eyes), dandelions are packed with Vitamin A, as well as Vitamin C, phosphorous, and calcium.
The young greens are the sweet part of the plant, whereas the bloom can taste somewhat bitter. Use the greens in place of lettuce on sandwiches for a tasty switch from the norm. The greens may also be sautéed or steamed as any other green. If you do want to eat the flower, blanch it for just a moment to remove the bitterness. You will lose a lot of vitamins and minerals this way, but plenty of beneficial nutrients will remain.
Of course, you may know that dandelion roots can be ground and used as a substitute for traditional coffee. That’s the sort of bitterness you find in the blooms, a nice sort of bitter. What you may not know is that the French have a wonderful recipe for Cream of Dandelion Soup.
It goes like this:
- 2 lbs (6 Cups) Dandelion Greens
- 1 Tablespoon Butter or Olive Oil
- 4 Cups Vegetable Stock
- 2 Large Leeks, white and light parts only, cleaned and sliced
- 1 Carrot, cleaned and diced
- 2 ½ cups milk
- 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- Dandelion blooms or leaves for garnish
Heat Butter or Oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add greens, carrot, and leeks. Cook, stirring often, for 15 minutes.
Add vegetable stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and whisk in milk. Stir frequently until slightly thickened.
Puree mix until smooth. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and Dijon mustard.
Serve in bowls and garnish with dandelion leaves or flowers.
I love violets. Not in my garden though. I like hardy, tough flowers, like Gladiolus (also edible), in my garden. Where I love violets is in my tea. I like them candied first.
How To Candy Flowers
- Powdered Egg White
- Extra Fine Sugar
Remove Stamens from Violets. You don’t want to eat the pollen.
Mix 1 tablespoon of powdered egg white with 3 ½ tablespoons of water until frothy.
Lay out a sheet of waxed paper for yourself.
Holding one of the flowers by the sepal with tweezers, paint the front and back of each petal with the egg-white mixture. A fine artists paintbrush is good for this.
Turn the flower over so that the back is facing up and sprinkle it heavily with extra-fine white sugar. Turn the flower face up and sprinkle lightly with sugar. There are a couple of reasons for this. If you use the flowers to decorate a cake, the heavier coating on the bottom of the petal helps to anchor the bloom where you want it. If you’re floating the flower in tea, more sugar will flavor your drink. Also, the lighter sugar coating helps to keep the blossom looking natural and fresh.
Gently place the flower on the waxed paper.
It takes about 2 weeks for the edible flowers to completely dry. You’ll want to move them around about an hour after you initially candy them though, so that any syrup that drips from the petals doesn’t make the flower stick to the waxed paper permanently. To do this, gently lift the flower from the paper with a small, sharp knife.
While Violets are a wonderful sweet treat, you must be absolutely certain of the species you are eating before you bring them into the kitchen with you or add them to your picnic. Certain wild varieties including Larkspur and Monkshood are poisonous. Always eat the flowers you grow yourself if you’re not sure of species or if it’s possible the blooms have been exposed to pollution (like along a roadside) or harmful chemical (like in a nursery or florist). You also need to stay away from the violet’s rhizome and root, they will make you sick.
Like most flowers, violets are often added to salads, but can be sautéed like spinach and added to stir-fry. When you eat the blooms and greens of violets, you are consuming the bioflavonoid rutin, which is a powerful free-radical fighter and helps to protect you against cancer. Rutin also strengthens blood capillaries, which is good news if you or your parents have varicose veins. You’re also getting a good dose of Vitamin C, which helps protect you from basically everything else.
If you like candied violets, you will love candied roses. The flavor is stronger, so I recommend trying violets first. If you do try them and like them, you’ll want them on every special occasion cake from now on. I fully intend on using candied roses on all the birthday cakes I make this year, and I wish I knew someone who was getting married close-by so I could convince them to make their own cake and let me make the flowers for it.
Because there are a thousand types of roses, there are thousands of ways you can eat them and as many flavors as there are colors. If you can bear to cut the beautiful petals into small pieces, add them to softened butter to make a floral-infused spread for toast at a baby or bridal shower. You can use the same trick in cheese spreads. Freeze miniature roses into ice cubes to add beauty and interest to cocktails and lemonade.
Roses are actually a good source of calcium. Remember this when you give your mother-in-law her mother’s day bouquet; women need all the calcium they can get. Vitamin A, B-Complex, C, D, E, and Iron are also included among the nutritional value of the rose.
It only takes a couple of days for a rose to completely dry out, but don’t think you can’t still eat dehydrated petals. Best way to do that? On the trail of course! Here’s a great recipe for Rose Petal Granola.
- 4 Cups of Rolled Oats
- 1 ½ cups of halved Pecans
- 1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
- ¼ Cup dried Cherries
- Petals from 1 dozen dried roses (I like multi-colored bouquets)
- ½ Cup Butter
- ½ Cup Honey
- ½ teaspoon Rose Water (see recipe below)
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.
Mix oats, pecans, salt, cherries, and half the rose petals in a bowl.
Heat the butter and honey in a small saucepan until melted and well-mixed. Remove from heat and add Rose Water.
Pour butter mix over oat mixture and stir until well coated.
Spread in a thin layer on a baking sheet and bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring once every 10 minutes or so.
Remove from the oven and let cool completely before adding the remaining rose petals.
Store in an airtight container.
How To Make Rose Water
- 3 quarts of fresh roses or rose petals
In your big canning pot, place a brick. A real brick. Place the roses or rose petals neatly around the brick. Add enough water to cover the petals.
On top of the brick, balance a glass bowl.
Place the pot’s lid upside down on the pot.
Turn the stove on and bring the water to a rolling boil, then fill the inverted lid with ice. You then lower the temperature to simmer the water in the pot.
You may have noticed that what you have on your stovetop is a home still! The steam rises off the water inside, hits the cool lid, and condenses. It flows to the center of the lid and drops into the bowl. Amazing. Every 20 minutes, quickly lift the lid and remove some of the distilled rose water with a ladle or turkey baster. You’ve reached the end of the road when you have about a pint jar full.
With seed catalogs filling your mailbox, and enough time gone by from harvest to make your forget your chronic gardener’s backache, I hope you’ll select some flower seeds to supplement your vegetable garden, and that you’ll put the blooms on the menu. Don’t just stop and smell the roses, take a big bite!