Edible flowers a growing source of flavor, texture for Wine Country restaurants
Our gardens and hillsides are awash in hues of yellow, orange, purple and blue this month as wild plants such as fennel and elderberry and cultivated rows of lavender and roses unfurl their buds and release a bouquet of heady scents.
For many chefs and mixologists working in Wine Country, those petite petals and flowers can not only serve as vibrant garnishes but as delicious vehicles to add flavor, texture and seasonality to the plate.
Cooking and garnishing with flowers has ebbed and flowed through the centuries, from the Roman times through Queen Victoria’s reign, but the nearly lost art has been revived recently as a way to add elegance and authenticity to farm-to-table cuisine.
Perry Hoffman, the chef at the Healdsburg SHED, has always worked at restaurants with large gardens and farms, so edible flowers have become a natural part of his culinary repertoire.
When he first started cooking at Auberge de Soleil in St. Helena in 2000, edible flowers were trending.
As a creative chef, Hoffman found incorporating the garden was a seamless way to connect all the components of a new dish.
“It was easier to conceptualize a dish when I looked outside,” Hoffman said. “Plums aren’t in season, but there are plum flowers … wow, this would be great with pickled plums from last year.”
Later, at Étoile at Domaine Chandon in Yountville - where he was the youngest chef in the U.S. to win a Michelin star - Hoffman would cruise through the extensive gardens and pick the flowering rosemary to top foie gras and other savory dishes.
Now as culinary director of the Healdsburg SHED, Hoffman likes to play in the kitchen with petals that he forages at various locations and sources from the restaurant’s 30-acre Home Farm.
The flowery accents perk up everything from salads and desserts to the SHED’s award-winning line of condiments, such as the Raspberry Rose Jam.
Along with the wide variety of microgreens that he grows himself, the house-grown blooms provide Hoffman with an additional arsenal of vegetal and floral flavors to surprise and delight diners.
“Edible flowers are an extra that invoke the sense of something special and different, but they’re hard to spend a lot of money on,” he said.
“The only way to do it is to grow it yourself and have a portion of your farm dedicated to flowers, which is beneficial for insects like ladybugs and bees.”
At SHED, Hoffman likes to use the flowers from leafy greens such as Swiss chard and the brassica family - kale, broccoli, radishes, mustard greens and arugula - along with wild lovage blooms, which he forages up near The Geysers at 2,500 feet elevation.
The wild lovage has little yellow flowers that taste like celery and parsley crossed with cinnamon and tropical notes.
“It’s one of the things that really tickles me inside - those wild herbs that are so special,” he said.
“The wild lovage is more hardy, it’s a perennial, so it comes back year after year.”
But you don’t have to head to the hills to find most of the edible flowers that cooks have been using for thousands of years, from the chrysanthemum petals first plucked by the Chinese to the rose petals incorporated into Indian food and the squash blossoms stuffed by the Italians.
Most of these can be grown in your own back yard or found at the local farmers’ market.
You just want to make sure, first, that they are truly edible (just Google it or get a guidebook). And second, that they have not been sprayed with any chemicals or exposed to a lot of car exhaust.
The flavors are surprisingly varied, from spicy and herbaceous petals perfect for sprinkling on salads and soups to floral and fragrant blooms ideal for infusing into ice cream or simple syrups for beverages.
In general, if it smells like an onion, he advised, then go ahead and use it as you would an onion.
“The individual flavors of flowers are so pungently representative of either their leaf or their root,” he said. “A celery flower and a carrot flower taste identical to celery and carrots.”
Coming into season now are the bachelor buttons - aka cornflowers - one of the only flowers grown at Home Farm that are virtually tasteless, but irresistibly pretty to the chef, whose mother is a florist. They come in varied hues of deep blue, purple, pink and white.
“It’s one of the only ones we use for color,” Hoffman said.
“They have this wonderful little confetti look to them, and they are only there for the aesthetic.”
Here are the top 10 edible flowers that Hoffman recommends for the spring and early summer, along with their flavors and how to incorporate them into your cooking.