Russell McCulley Cheryl Gerber photographRistorante Civello's shrimp Soprano accented with pansies and “red rose cascade.”
The first time I ate flowers, aside from an unfortunate incident on a kindergarten playground, was at a public market food stall in Oaxaca, Mexico. The chef—a plump, stern woman in an apron—folded a handful of bright yellow squash blossoms, along with some white cheese and a few sprigs of herbs, into a tortilla. The resulting quesadilla had a delicate, slightly sweet flavor and unusual texture, but the
most memorable part of it was the very idea of chowing down on blossoms, something as foreign to my Norteamericano instincts as the snacks of spicy fried grasshoppers another woman tried to sell me before I dug into my floral lunch. Gracias, señora, but one new adventure at a time, please.
It wasn’t really my first time—technically, broccoli, cauliflower and artichokes, all staples of the North American diet, are flowers. But the idea of eating decorative blossoms is a relatively new one in these parts. And adventurous chefs are increasingly using flowers to add a bit of panache to their plates.
“It brings out the beauty in the plate,” says Ristorante Civello executive chef Paul Gilberti, who likes to top some of his dishes with rose petals, pansies or a flowering green onion. Flowers add visual appeal to the sensory aspects of dining. “Visual is the first sense, then smell, followed by taste,” he says.
Blossoming in the Kitchen
Home chefs, likewise, are incorporating edible flowers in salads and other dishes. But before you run out to the garden and start picking, keep in mind that some flowers, like some plants, are poisonous. Azalea, daffodil, oleander, rhododendron and wisteria, among other flowers, should be avoided. A little research is in order—one good book on the topic is “Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate” by Cathy Wilkinson Barash, a gardening-cookbook hybrid that contains a lot of information on the top consumable blooms as well as 280 recipes.
I spoke with Paul Arceneaux of Paul’s Palate, a pesto maker who often brings along a container of freshly harvested edible flowers to his stall at the Crescent City Farmers Market. “They really make the plate look nice,” says Arceneaux. Some flowers have a distinctive taste, he says; others are used more for their visual appeal.
Arceneaux favors roses, particularly the small petals of the red cascade variety, which can be dipped in egg white and dusted with finely ground sugar. “They don’t have a lot of flavor, but they look so pretty,” he says.
Nasturtium blossoms, on the other hand, have a pronounced peppery taste. The flowering portion of a mint plant, unsurprisingly, produces a minty taste. And arugula blossoms, which taste much like the plant’s leaves, can be used to top a salad.
Arceneaux tends to divide edible flowers into two categories: those that look good, and the ones that add flavor. The first includes pansies, which have a very mild flavor but give any spring plate a dazzling visual punch. Basil flowers, on the other hand, aren’t particularly attractive but do make a flavorful addition to a salad, he says.
The blooms of flowering herbs, in fact, are some of easiest to incorporate into dishes. “Rosemary produces beautiful blue flowers, almost like an orchid,” Arceneaux says. “And they’re very flavorful.”
Other herb blossoms that can be used to garnish salads and other dishes include chamomile, chives, coriander, dill, fennel and marjoram.
Impatiens, like pansies, have a rather bland flavor but look pretty on the plate. Gardenias have a light, slightly sweet flavor. One variety of rose-scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)is sometimes used to line a cake pan, Arceneaux says, to give a delicate rose flavor to a pound cake. “Or you can crush them and put them in bath water,” he adds.
Picked edible flowers usually don’t stay fresh for long; it is best to use them within a matter of hours, and to harvest them when it’s still cool outside, preferably in the morning. Better to choose blossoms that are young and not fully open, and to store them for a few hours between layers of damp paper towels or in plastic bags in the refrigerator.
Avoid flowers that have been sprayed with pesticide or other chemicals. It’s probably a good idea to stick to the garden and steer clear of flowers that come from a florist, nursery or garden center. A good rule of thumb is—and your mama could have told you this—if you’re not sure what it is or where it came from, don’t eat it.
If it turns up on a restaurant plate, whether wrapped in a quesadilla or sitting atop a salad, you should be able to proceed without hesitation.
“The flowers were created by God, and God meant for me to be a chef,” declares Gilberti. I’m not sure about the theological implications of cooking with fresh flowers, but a tastefully placed arrangement of petals do make a dish look, well, divine.
Some Popular Edible Flowers—and some to avoid
Source: “Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate” by Cathy Wilkinson Barash
Lily of the valley
Source: Paul Arceneaux of Paul’s Palate
Want to Eat Flowers?
Check out “Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate” by Cathy Wilkinson Barash, which provides recipes and a list of edible flowers.