Field Guide: Stop and Pick the Violets

Why an abundant spring flower deserves your attention

By Iliana Regan

Indiana’s spring harvest season unravels like a cable-knit sweater. Pluck one ingredient and another appears behind it. Each bud, flower, and leaf triggers the next. My dad taught me to keep an eye out for violets, because once violets start to bloom, morels are right around the corner. Now, I remind my friends and foraging partners to pay attention to the violets, too.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent springtime nibbling on violets. You’ve probably seen them. Maybe you have them in your yard, though it’s best to gather them in the woods, taking care to identify them properly. They are among the most accessible seasonal edibles, growing abundantly in shades of purple, white, and occasionally yellow, all smelling and tasting floral and sweet. It takes time to fill a bag or basket with dozens of delicate blooms, but violets make an incredibly vibrant garnish, and they bring spring flavor to a range of dishes and infusions.

A salad of fresh violet flowers and leaves is a delicious treat. They taste the way spring smells, fresh and green. I cold-steep violets in simple syrup, leaving them to impart color and flavor for several days, then spoon the syrup into sparkling water or tea. I infuse the flowers into heavy cream the same way, and I sweeten the mauve-tinted liquid with sugar and salt before drizzling it over fresh berries. (You can keep the syrup in the refrigerator for at least a month, and the cream for a few days.) If you’re more adventurous, you can try a naturally fermented soda, or even a violet wine.

Just the other day, I collected a pound of spring violets for vinegar—to use on salads and to drizzle over fish, steak, and, for a true springtime treat, wild asparagus.

To start a violet vinegar, stuff as many flowers as you can harvest into a jar, then add water to cover them. Add 30% of the total weight of the flowers and water in raw honey (about ¾ cup per quart), then cover the mixture with a tea towel or paper towel cinched with twine or a rubber band. Mix the cordial with a clean spoon or butter knife a couple of times a day at first, then once a day or so, tasting it occasionally. It will begin to bubble after a few days and transform from natural soda to violet wine to vinegar over the course of a month. The bubbling will stop, a layer of sediment will fall to the bottom, and the flavor will become bright and sharp. When the vinegar is to your liking, strain and refrigerate it. The ephemeral violet flavor captured in your jar will become smoother with age and eclipse the flavor of any store-bought bottle.

Iliana Regan is the chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago and the “eccentric bed and breakfast” Milkweed Inn, located in the Hiawatha National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is the author of the memoir Burn the Place, longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award. You can find her in the woods.