Flower power: Adding more nature to spice up your meals

Pansies are great in salads.

Pansies are great in salads.

As spring unfolds in bursts of peonies, day lilies, and other nascent flowers, the sweet perfume and bright colors of seasonal flora entice the senses. While it is common to appreciate the sight and smell of the warmer season’s blossoms, many will also be indulging in floral tastes. Food enthusiasts, florists, and chefs alike will be incorporating edible flowers into some of their dishes this season, contributions which will add flavors ranging from bold and peppery to subtle and delicate.

Amanda Smith, of Darien-based Amanda Smith Caterers (www.amandasmithcaterers.com), tapped into her  culinary knowledge to share information on various types of edible flowers and ways to prepare them. Prior to beginning her catering business in 2002, Smith immersed herself in Asian, South African, Europeaån and Mexican cultures and cuisine. This experience lends to her unique creations and inclusion of flowers in some dishes. “The flower of a squash, called a squash blossom, is used frequently in Mexican dishes,” she states.

For an idea of how to use squash for a meal, click here.

Dandelions are used in wine.

Dandelions are used in wine.

The vivid orange or yellow blossoms can be purchased at a farmers’ or specialty market. One way to prepare this delicate-flavored flower is to make a soup using zucchini and corn and putting the squash blossom into the broth. An Italian variation is frying it and filling it with mozzarella, anchovies, and basil. She continues to explain that the squash blossom’s taste is similar to zucchini but more subtle. Smith also suggests using the squash blossom in crepes.

Another original dish conceived by Smith that incorporates a flower is a lavender-crusted tuna with wasabi cream sauce. Raw lavender tastes soapy but when cooked it lends a lovely floral accent to a dish. Smith also suggests pansies, which can easily be found in either grocery store or garden, and can be used fresh as a garnish in salads.

Safety first

Fairfield resident and master gardener Amie Copeland Stark of Mia Flora Garden Design says there are a remarkable amount of flowers and herbs one can add to their dinner tables. “Before embarking on any edible flower hunts, please consider these simple guidelines:

•Check a reference guide in your area as to what is and is not edible.

•Consider any allergies or medical issues you have. Eat sparingly at first.

•Make sure what you are eating has not been treated with pesticides.

•Only eat the petals. Remove the pistol and stamen from the flower.”

Stark gave some examples of edible flowers from the area:

Pansies and violas, which are the “most well known edible flower and great in salads,” she said.

Nasturtium, “another popular flower with a peppery taste,” said Stark.

Rose petals and lavender, which can be used in flavored oils as a sweetener.

Dandelion, which is commonly used to make wine and is “also good sautéed,” said Stark.

Other items to use is bee balm for tea, or squash with that sweet, nutty flavor.

Stay away from eating daffodils, experts say.

Stay away from eating daffodils, experts say.

Flowers to stay away from include: Hydrangea, daffodil, crocus, azalea, rhododendron and lily of the valley.

Food for thought

Henry Paul Benvenite, a.k.a. “chef Paul,” is another culinary artist with an understanding of all things food. An award-winning French chef with 20 years’ experience including in some of France’s Michelin-starred restaurants, chef Paul’s catering business (www.cateringbychefpaul.com in Branford customizes menus using only the freshest seasonal ingredients.

Benvenite offers a glimpse into preparing dishes with edible flowers: “Flowers in cooking are more of an adjuvant or a flavoring ingredient, consumed in their raw state or used as an ornament, although some could be fried or deep-fried. Pastry chefs in France for centuries have used candied violets. The city of Toulouse, France, is known internationally for its candied violets specialty.” Chef Paul explains that often flowers are used as an adornment or integrated into a colorful salad for aesthetic appeal. On the other hand, “flowers from trees, such as acacia, are delicious in fritters, offering only value in taste but adding no visual appeal.”

To achieve an outstanding seasonal dish that combines both visual beauty and delicious flavor, chef Paul suggests his creation, “Zucchini blossoms filled with a salmon shrimp mousse and steamed, not separated from their green baby zucchini, served with reduced shrimp stock lightly laced with saffron threads.” He provides several ideas for cooking with flowers at home. “Pastry cream with rose petals preserve; ice cream flavored with violet; dip a few pansies in a few ounces of vinegar for three hours before using it (vinegar) in a vinaigrette; add nasturtium and marigold petals to a mesclun salad; add nasturtiums to a rice pilaf.”

A final tip from chef Paul when cooking with edible flowers is balance. “A recipe highlights its main ingredient by combining the flavor of other ingredients, making sure none will overpower the others.” He cautions that flowers’ fragrance can sometimes dominate a dish. “For example, roses are edible, but if you steam beautiful fresh diver-scallops and try somehow to incorporate roses to the dish, chance is you will hate the result! On another hand, lightly infusing edible lavender as an adjuvant to a sauce served with the scallops will nicely complete the flavor palette.”

A taste of the good life

Ridgefield-based florist Patty Angione also offers some insight into cooking with flowers. With 30 plus years’ experience as an independent floral designer, Angione has garnered a great deal of knowledge working with flowers in her business Farmhouse Flowers ([email protected]).

“Nasturtiums are used in salads and come in bright orange, red, white and yellow colors.” She explains that they lend a bold, peppery flavor to salads. “They have a similar taste to arugula.” Yu choy sum flowers, yellow oriental flora or Chinese flowering cabbage used in Asian dishes is a recommendation that embodies Angione’s philosophy of using the freshest and most unique materials available. She adds that pansies are yet another edible flower. “You can dip them in simple syrup and dust them with granulated sugar and then incorporate them into desserts or as a cake decoration.”

Doug Pippitt of New Canaan Florist Garden and Gifts (www.newcanaanflora.com) provides a list of the various edible flowers that they sell. “The most common are pansies and nasturtiums,” he says. Others include rosemary, squash blossoms, johnny jump-ups, and pea tendrils. He adds that this full-service garden center has annuals, perennials, and specialty items. “If it exists, we can find it,” he proudly states. So for those interested in experimenting with new, unique edible flowers this season, keep that in mind.

Just a reminder: Be sure that the flowers with which you cook or bake are indeed edible, and not poisonous. If you’re in doubt, find an alternative.

Robin Walluck contributed to this story.

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