Eating Wild: Violet Jelly

April 12, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

Watching all the hard work my sister and her husband are doing in their garden lately, it seems unfair that we…I mean, that they’ll have to wait a couple of months before they’ll be able to eat anything from it. Fortunately, there’s one crop growing like gangbusters in their yard right now — something that they didn’t have to plant or even tend at all — that is already ripe for harvesting: wildflowers.

In theory, it seems obvious that certain kinds of wildflowers would be edible, but it almost feels too fanciful to think that you could make a salad of dandelion greens (you can!) or a cake with sugared flowers (I have!) simply by grabbing a handful of what you have growing in the backyard. And yet edible wild plants are exploding everywhere right now (as my allergies can attest), so it’s a great time to give them a try.

There are a couple of rules when it comes to eating wildflowers, of course: Don’t eat anything that’s not organically grown, for one. (Munching on some roadside flowers is probably not going to be the edenic experience you’re going for.) And, of course, make sure what you’re picking is actually, you know, edible. In the portion of my sister’s yard that’s not given over to the garden, violets have been running rampant lately, so we decided to start with violet jelly. Violets are easy to spot and easy to pick; the idea of flower jelly fascinated the kids; and if it didn’t actually work out in the end, all we stood to lose were a few weeds.

Following these instructions, the whole process was dead easy. The first task was “harvesting” the violets, which may have been the best part: The kids happily disappeared outside with their buckets to collect the flowers while Amy and I relaxed in the shade and periodically offered encouragement. (To keep them occupied longer, just tell them you’ll be making a lot of jelly…)

You need about two heaping cups of lightly packed violets (ones with petals fully open are best); give them a rinse and place them in a glass measuring cup or bowl. Cover with two cups of boiling water and let steep anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours. We set ours in the window to let it cool down a little and then covered it and stuck it in the fridge overnight.

When it’s done steeping, strain out the violets and reserve the (by now shockingly purple) liquid. Combine the violet water with 4 cups of sugar and ¼ cup lemon juice in a heavy saucepan on the stove. (If you’re canning this, use bottled lemon juice; the acidity is more consistent in the bottled variety, which better guarantees bacteria-free conditions. If you’re not canning, though, you can always use fresh (strained) lemon juice.)

Bring the mixture to a hard rolling boil and stir in a 3 oz. pouch of liquid pectin (we used Certo). Keeping boiling and stirring for another two minutes, skimming off any foam that may collect on the top. Pour into hot, sterile jars, leaving 1/8″ head space; clean the rims, attach the lids, and — if you’re preserving the jelly and not just refrigerating it — process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes. (For more detailed canning instructions, check out Ashley English’s book Homemade Living: Canning and Preserving.)

When you remove the jars from the water bath, the jelly will still be liquid, but it will set up as the jars cool. Just leave them undisturbed on a towel on the counter for a while and they’ll be fine. The recipe makes around 5 half pints.

As for the taste: Well, it’s delicate, a little floral (obviously), and…purple-y? Honestly, it’s hard to describe; violets don’t have a particularly strong flavor (though I’ve heard that cultivated violets are a bit more assertive), but the jelly is sweet and lovely to look at and excellent on biscuits, so I’m calling it a win. It makes great gifts, too: We gave away all the jars but one, and everyone was completely charmed by the unusual color and the “I’m-eating-wildflowers”-ness of it all.

Looking for more to do with edible flowers? Ashley English suggests sprinkling violets over a breakfast risotto for a little color, or making violet sugar. And that’s not even venturing into the world of apple blossoms, pansies, dandelions…

Have you ever eaten wildflowers? What’s your favorite thing to do with them?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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