Here in Albuquerque, pansies are a pretty presence during the fall, take a brief break in the coldest weather, and then bloom themselves silly in the spring. The hot weather finishes them off. For years I’ve enjoyed their beauty and have used the edible and mild-tasting flowers to beautify my salads. It was only this year that I learned that the leaves are edible too, and in fact are very tasty, with a substantial but tender texture and a cool, slightly minty taste rather like mache’. Now I put in pansy plants in late September, let them establish themselves for a month, and begin plucking leaves and flowers at will until late November. After that I leave them alone until they show fresh growth in the spring. When making mixed salads, the mildly sweet flowers and leaves go better with lettuces than with the wilder-flavored greens like arugula or any of the chicories. Keep the flowers on top where they can be appreciated. I like to lay them on after the greens have been dressed. Gently floral olive oils like the ones from Provence and mild vinegars or a little lemon juice let these subtle flavors shine.
It’s worth noting that this triple-purpose quality makes pansies a good use of space in the cold months, and means that you can get some local food even from a pot of flowers by your door.
Some people make derisive noises about edible flowers, and think that the trend was a 1980’s California phenomenon and is now long over. Well, edible flowers have a culinary history several hundred years old at a minimum, and not likely to be over any time soon. Anything that both beautifies food and makes it taste better is worth learning about and preserving. The best culinary list of flowers that I know of is an appendix in John Ash’s From the Earth to the Table, which is a delightful cookbook in other respects as well. Second-hand copies are often available. Check it out.
If you get your plants from a nursery, ask whether they’ve been sprayed or fertilized, and wait a month or more to make sure they’re safe to eat.