While master chefs embrace edible flowers, especially as springtime blooms, this botanical trend is anything but trendy. Julius Caesar's Roman banquet tables were not only a feast for the palate, but also for the eyes enhanced with an impressive array of brilliantly-hued culinary flowers. Throughout the ages, French foodies creatively incorporated fleurs gourmandes in sweets, savories and sips; Queen Victoria had a passion for petals; while flower power blossomed into a global psychedelic garden during the hippie era.
One summer years back, I enrolled in a botanical course where the mad science professor took the class on field trips in the woods where our assignments consisted of foraging for edible flowers and fungi, then creating dishes using our pickings. She jokingly remarked that if we survived, then we passed the class. Alive to tell the tale, I got an "A."
Here's a seasonal primer on the best edible flowers to enliven your drinks and dishes, while ratcheting up your health with their Herculean healing powers.
Coming up Roses: A rose by any other name would still infuse a delicate fruity flavor to everything from apps to desserts. Velvety ruby petals perk up a mixed green or tropical fruit salad, a springtime cocktail, punch or lemonade. Sassy rose sauces enhance hens, wild-caught fish and pastas, while divine simple syrups transform waffles and French toast into indulgent treats. Let's not forget rose hips (the plant's fruit) that dial up baked goods, jams and soothing teas.
Rose has a rich store of flavonoids, anthocyanins, Vitamins A, B3, C and E with antioxidant, antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties to boost the immune system and mood, ward off infections and fever, menstrual cramps, digestive ails, and stress, while keeping the constitution humming.
Nothing to Sneeze At: Nasturtiums come in Technicolors ranging from alabaster to scarlet, adding a peppery nuance, and splash of eye candy to salads, chilled soups, canapés, cheese platters, charcuterie boards, and whimsical drinks, while the spherically-shaped seeds can be pickled and used as a flavoring or garnish much like capers. Nasturtium's claim to fame is its ability to put the skids on pesky bladder infections.
Let's Play Squash: The sweet, delicate flowers of the courgette plant known as zucchini blossoms are a seasonal delicacy in Italian kitchens, which can be scoped out at farmer's markets this time of year. Tender yellow blossoms are traditionally stuffed with cheeses and herbs (see recipe), or as a topping for pizzas and frittatas. These low-cal lightweights give an oomph of calcium for strengthening bones, iron for fortifying blood, Vitamin A for eye and skin health, and C to boost immunity.
No Shrinking Violet: These deep purple attention-grabbers make eye-popping popsicles, garnishes for iced drinks, spring salads and soups, while the piece de resistance—an elegant decoration for cakes and frozen treats when coated with a mixture of egg whites, lemon juice, and superfine cane sugar. As virtuous as they are vivacious violets have a rich supply of flavonoids, saponins, salicylic acid, rutin, beta-carotene and Vitamin C to regulate blood pressure, fend off colds, relieve bronchial congestion and achy joints.
Saffron on a Shoestring: Bursting with the hues of a vibrant orange sunset, calendula petals add a pop of color and subtle, spicy kick to assorted egg and rice dishes. Infused in oil, whether avocado, olive or sweet almond, this marigold imparts a golden color, and flavor reminiscent of saffron without the sticker shock to use as a dipping oil, marinade or dressing. Calendula is a wonder for healing skin irritations, inflammations, burns, wounds and even warts with its potent oils and phyto compounds.
In the Pink: Delightfully tart, fuchsia-tinged hibiscus flowers whether dried to make a refreshing tea, blended in a tropical smoothie, frozen into cubes or boiled into a multi-tasking syrup have been hailed as a miracle worker. Its glorious anthocyanin pigments, antioxidants and bioflavonoids tame everything from high blood pressure and cholesterol levels to menopausal flashes and jittery nerves.
Note: Check with your practitioner before indulging in edible flowers.
Recipe: Blue Crab Stuffed Squash Blossoms
Ingredients: 1/4 cup goat cheese; 1/2 cup grated Monterey jack cheese; 1 cup crabmeat, shelled; 2 teaspoons lemon zest; 1/2 cup diced dried figs; 12 mint leaves, minced; 2 tablespoons tequila; 8 squash blossoms; 1/4 cup virgin olive oil; 16 chives
Method: Preheat oven to 350-degrees F. Blanch chives in boiling water 10 seconds. Transfer to ice bath. Combine cheeses, zest, figs, mint and tequila in large mixing bowl using wooden spoon. Fold in crabmeat. Season with salt and pepper. Carefully open blossoms. Fill with crab mixture. Tie with chives. Brush baking dish with oil. Lay blossoms in dish. Drizzle with remaining oil. Season with salt and pepper. Bake 15 minutes or until heated through. Serves 4.
Recipe courtesy of Bernard Guillas, executive chef of The Marine Room in La Jolla.