From vase to plate, flowers find a new home in the kitchen
Restaurants have always embraced flowers for their aesthetic value, turning dreary dining rooms into welcoming spaces, but now, thanks to the creativity of progressive chefs, flowers are blossoming as a superstar ingredient in kitchens across the West. That is not to say this practice is so common that geraniums are now the secret ingredient in your mom’s homemade lasagna, but within the culinary industry, the inclusion of flowers while cooking has become increasingly prevalent in professional kitchens.
If one has paid close attention to menu trends over the last five years, there has been a clear movement of flowers of all colors, shapes and sizes, moving out of our gardens and vases, and onto our plates. From zucchini blossoms featured in Aziza’s modern Moroccan cuisine, to nasturtium-sprinkled cuttlefish on Degustation’s Spanish menu in New York City, flowers have spread their seeds from coast-to-coast and are sprouting up in a wide variety of cuisines.
Cooking with flowers is not the idea of a chef who plucked a lily from the side of the road, ate it and declared that by 2010, menus across the world would emphasize their use. In reality, the utilization of flowers in both beverages and cuisine has roots in historical traditions that date back to over 4,000 years ago.
A brief history of edible flowers
Ancient Chinese dynasties recognized the medicinal benefits of flowers and featured daylily buds in stir-fries, chrysanthemum petals in soups and used dried rosebuds for tea. Similarly, in Ancient Rome, mallows, roses and violets were believed to be cleansing for the body and consequently, eaten regularly.
In the 15th century, society’s conception of flowers evolved as borage, daisies, violets and gilly flowers were used to enhance the aroma and flavor of dishes across Europe. Once again, their purpose changed during England’s Victorian Era when emphasis shifted from flavor to appearance. Physical aspects of flowers became associated with elegance and importance; thus, it became a la mode to serve salads containing fresh flower petals and desserts sprinkled with candied varieties such as borage and violet. This emphasis placed on image continued through recent decades, as fine-dining establishments used lavish floral garnishes as accompaniments on the plate, establishing an opulent standard for formal dish presentation.
Although these historical accounts provide a link to our culinary past, a revival of old traditions is not the driving force behind this trend’s rise to the forefront of culinary discussions. The real motivator? The push towards more local, seasonal food.
Buzz words that sparked a movement
The current local-centric culture creates a clear win-win situation for not only the environment, farmers and chefs, but also for a less obvious winner the flower. Why exactly do flowers benefit from the locavore movement? The delicacy of a flower is not compatible with long-distance travel, nor can they stay fresh for great lengths of time; therefore, the shift towards supporting local farms means flowers are now reaching kitchens without any sacrifices in quality. With more flowers coming in from the market, more flowers are going onto the menu.
Some restaurants like Madrona Manor are eliminating delivery entirely by planting their own gardens.
Chef Jesse Mallgren notes the role restaurant gardens have started to play on restaurant menus. “Chefs are constantly thinking of how to get the most out of their gardens, how to get everything that grows in their garden on the menu; since chefs are always looking for new and different ingredients to use, garden flowers naturally caught our attention,” he explains. It was during a walk through the restaurant’s garden that he stumbled upon what he considers his favorite edible flower, the pineapple guava flower, which he now serves with roasted squab breast, parsley root puree and fiddlehead ferns.
Seasonal menus featuring seasonal flowers
The emphasis on the garden also means that menu selections are increasingly limited to what is available during the growing season, an outcome that works hand-in-hand with the hyper-seasonal nature of flowers. As more restaurants embrace market-driven menus, chefs are turning to flowers to “season” their dishes.
Spring, the most active blooming season, offers a wide array of options: spring onion flowers, green garlic blossoms, nasturtium and sweet violets to name a few. Chef and Owner Andrew Schiff of Spread in San Diego, featured rose petal pesto grits (made with African blue basil, heirloom rose petals and raw macadamia nuts), and lavender blossom guacamole on the restaurant’s spring menu, while the current summer menu is filled with botanical selections. Notable dishes include hibiscus blossom mole served with grilled vegetables, corn tortillas, hibiscus essence, and rose, while fresh pappardelle is covered with an artichoke and calendula marinara.
In August, expect to see the emergence of bee balm, recommended for salads and cocktails due to its citrus-mint flavor. Distinctly different winter offerings come with the cooler weather and few flowers other than wood sorrel, broccoli rabe and cabbage come out of hibernation.
Is the flower the future of food?
Is the use of flowers in food going to be another culinary fad, or will it be a sustainable movement? If Chef Andrew Schiff’s assertions are right, flowers represent the trend of moving away from processed foods and reconnecting with the fresh, stimulating essence of the garden, then the answer might very well be yes. “If you are what you eat, and you want to be mentally and physically stimulated, then the flower is the source.” While there may still be some time before the general public adopts this philosophy, local growers and chefs across the country have certainly caught on. With more and more local farmers finding a new revenue stream in the production of edible flowers, and making them available to chefs who are in turn adding them to their menus, flowers have found a foundation for becoming a lasting presence.
The magic of flowers
The special flavor profiles of flowers can give more depth to a dish, enhancing it either through subtle hints and nuances, or through pungent aromas. Daniel Patterson, executive chef at two-star Michelin-rated restaurant COI in San Francisco, understood the flower’s singular appeal long before its wide-spread industry use. “The idea to use flowers in my cooking came in 1992 when, while picking morning supplies from the restaurant’s neighboring garden, I decided to try eating some of the blossoming flowers.” The hidden flavor behind the flower’s pretty exterior led Chef Patterson to begin experimenting in the kitchen and uncovering ways to use flowers to their full potential.
He explained his philosophy for why, to him, edible flowers are exceptional and unique ingredients, “A flower only blossoms when the plant is at the terminal point of its life the plant knows it’s going to die, and must now fully depend on the flower as a final means to reproduce.” The plant must go big, or go home, and Patterson explains that the plant then expends “a certain energy on the flower that is unlike any other stage in the growth cycle.” He maintains that this singular burst of energy is inherent in the subtle differences in the texture and the flavor of the flower, which is a more delicate, slightly sweeter expression of the plant itself.
The flavors of flowers
It is because flowers provide such unique and delicate flavors that Chef Patterson never adds them to a dish for purely aesthetic reasons; the vibrant oranges and reds of the nasturtium lying atop his chilled English pea soup with house-made buttermilk are not there to act as garnish, but to add sweet and spicy nuances which, in turn, create a more complex and complete dish. Similarly, in early spring, the aromatic qualities a cherry blossom twig, served alongside his cherry blossom-infused buttermilk panna cotta, topped with pickled fennel and wild fennel fronds, transforms the flavors of the dish into something truly unique.
At Saison, Chef Joshua Skenes’s restaurant in San Francisco, something as simple as a beet is no longer just a component of a dish, but now its centerpiece. His challenge is to accentuate and elevate the beet’s flavor without overshadowing or overcomplicating its taste, and for this, he uses flowers. “The beets are roasted in ambers, and paired with caramelized bone marrow; that pairing gives the dish an earthy depth of flavor. Both are rather unctuous in different ways. I balance this earthy, richness by adding imperial hibiscus and imperial rose that has been ground into salt, which gives the dish a floral, delicate quality.” Subtle, simple and sophisticated, sometimes all it takes is a flower.
While some chefs are using flowers for their subtle characteristics, others like Ludo Lefebvre of LudoBites in L.A., are finding techniques to enhance their potency and strengthen their presence on the plate. He does this through concentrating their flavor, “I’ve been studying how to make perfume; I’m working on getting the essence of flowers. Boiling flowers in water that is kept at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time creates the essence of rose, or violet,” an essence which he currently uses to make a rose soufflé, paired with yogurt sorbet.
Despite differences in application, all chefs agree on one thing: don’t put it on the plate if it doesn’t contribute to the flavor. The days of lavish, unnecessary floral garnishes adorning the plate are over, and the flower’s taste, not visual appeal, is what will take the dining experience to the next level.
Kelsey Elliott is a food snob of the highest degree, but in a loving way. A search marketer by day, food blogger and restaurant enthusiast by night, she takes her passion for market- driven menus from the plate to the paper on her Web site KelsEats.com. Here she conveys her enthusiasm for all aspects of the dining experience through delicate reviews that fill the mind and delight the palate. She also muses on the different aspects of California Cuisine in her articles for Examiner online. For more information, please visit her Web site, or contact Kelsey directly at Kelsey@kelseats.com.