Heavy Petal: Flavor blooms with fresh florals

Flowers are for looking at. Flowers are for smelling. But flowers for eating?

Yes. Chef Tim Grandinetti of Clarksville Station at Overlook Farm in Clarksville discovered the potential of edible flowers as a child of 6 or 7 in an Italian neighborhood in New York. “I picked a few of those large, golden squash blossoms,” he said. “And there was this beautiful old Italian woman named Carmella. She saw the blossoms in my hands and asked what I was going to do with them. I said, ‘Oh, Miss Carmella, they’re so beautiful. What do you mean, do something to them?’ Then she took me inside and showed me how to stuff a perfect squash blossom.” Today, he honors Miss Carmella’s legacy by using edible flowers prominently in his cuisine.

Grandinetti does so in many ways. His marigold fritters, which he described as a “little savory doughnut,” are made of a light batter flavored with marigold petals. He sets them on a pool of saffron aïoli for a beautiful combination of colors, the orange and burgundy flecks within the soft golden fritters against a background of bright yellow. The marigolds not only add color, but also have a light musky flavor that contrasts with the richness of the saffron and garlic in the aïoli.

Perhaps more approachable for home cooks are nasturtiums, one of the most widely eaten flowers. Nasturtiums are both easy to grow and easy to use; their flowers and foliage alike are edible. Ellen Barredo, horticulture manager at Bowood Farms in the Central West End, is selling nasturtiums for the first time this year; her customers are excited about growing flowers to put in their salads, she reported. And one of Clarksville Station’s most popular summertime salads includes nasturtium flowers and leaves with spinach. “The rainbow of colors from the nasturtium flowers against the green leaves of spinach is just beautiful,” Grandinetti said. “The nasturtiums add a pecan-peppery note.” Grandinetti also uses nasturtiums in a vinaigrette to flavor grilled salmon.

Turning from the backyard to tropical imports, Grandinetti flavors teas and other drinks with hibiscus flowers. He said the flowers’ heady, earthy taste complements the sweetness and floral flavors of these summer drinks. They also contribute spectacular burgundy color for a jewel-like shine.

Pansies and violas are common cool-season annuals whose flowers have long been used for garnishes and in confectionery. Grandinetti recalled the Johnny-jump-ups, little violas with bright purple-and-gold faces, which grew in his grandparents’ backyard in New York and which he uses in a dumpling recipe. As a garnish in salads, he believes they add striking color and “signify freshness,” the kind of freshness available only when you have a patch of flowers and herbs outside your door.

For full flavor, edible flowers must be eaten within a few days of harvest. Moreover, it’s essential that the flowers you eat have not been treated with pesticides or fertilizers; even if such pesticides and fertilizers aren’t harmful to humans, they make the flowers taste nasty. And while many flowers are edible, some just taste bad. Others are outright poisonous, of course – so never eat any flower that you don’t know for certain is edible.

If the leaf tastes good, the flower likely will, as well. Many herbs produce beautiful flowers that can be used to add flavor and color to food. For instance, basil is probably the most popular herb in today’s kitchen; its intensely aromatic leaves bring the soul of summer to pasta, pizza and panini. But it’s also a lovely plant that, in late summer, brings forth a cloud of little white-and-lavender flowers that can be used in cooking. Grandinetti uses basil flowers atop Clarksville Station’s bruschetta. Take a base of fresh crostini, spread it with pesto, top it with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, and sprinkle everything with basil flowers for an effect Grandinetti called “basil on basil.”

Borage has starry blue flowers with a light cucumber flavor. They’re a traditional garnish for Pimm’s Cup, a cocktail based on Pimm’s No. 1 (the well-known liqueur) combined with carbonated lemonade and various fruits. They can also be sprinkled over light-fleshed fish fillets right before serving for a hint of cucumber.

Chive flowers are one of the most versatile edible flowers, as their light onion flavor adds a great accent to savory dishes of all sorts. Like all onion family members, chive blossoms are made up of many tiny star-shaped flowers attached to a central stalk, forming a spherical bloom. To use chive flowers in the kitchen, pull the individual flowers off the flower head. The stalks that attach the individual flowers to the central stalk are like bits of fishing wire, so make sure to pluck the flowers off their stems. Jennifer Pensoneau of JFires’ Market Bistro in Waterloo and her executive chef, John Sewell, incorporate chive blossoms in their corn-bread stuffing. They also suggested using chive or garlic flowers in sausage and charcuterie to add delicate onion flavors.

Hyssop, an ancient Mediterranean herb, has beautiful, intense blue flowers and a strong musky aroma. Grandinetti said that hyssop has been overlooked for too long and is due for a rise in popularity. One of his favorite uses for the herb is to sprinkle the flowers and coarsely chopped foliage over slices of fine European-style melons. The hyssop’s earthiness makes the melon’s flavor more refined, he noted. “It’s such a simple touch,” Grandinetti said, “but it takes the fruit to a whole different level.”

Whether for fruit-based or other dishes, taking it to a different level, ironically, may involve something as simple as taking the freshest ingredients from an unexpected place – your flower garden. Trust us: Your palate will be pleased.