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Flower Tips

Look it up: If you are in doubt, research a flower to see if it is safe to eat and always refer to its botanical name to identify it exactly.

The good and bad: The flowers of most vegetables and herbs are safe to eat, but avoid the flowers of tomato, potato, eggplant, peppers and asparagus.

Edible websites: For a safe eating guide, search “edible flowers” at epicurean.com; extension.oregonstate.edu; whatscookingamerica.net

Clean eating: Eat flowers you have grown yourself or from a farmer you know. Avoid eating any flower that has grown on the roadside or been sprayed with chemicals or pesticides, which means most flowers from florists and nurseries.

Pick it: Harvest flowers during the cool times of day such as early morning or late afternoon.

Know your flower parts: Not all parts of the flower are harmless and/or edible, so don’t assume you can eat all parts. For example, rhubarb stems are a delicacy but its leaves, root and flowers should not be eaten.

Petal power: Some flowers, like nasturgium and borage, can be eaten in entirety. For roses and lavender, only the petals are edible so separate them just prior to using. Roses and marigolds have a bitter white portion at the base of the petal where it attaches to the flower, so trim that before serving.

Pollen a problem: Pollen can detract from the flavor of the flower, so remove pistils and stamens and use the edible parts.

Clean it up: Gently rinse flowers before consuming and use within a few hours. To keep them fresh, place on moist paper towels and refrigerate in an airtight container.

Serving advice: When serving flowers fresh, add them to you dish just before serving, as you would fresh herbs.

Go easy: Some flowers, like lavender, have a strong taste and are best used in moderation. Also, some flowers, such wild pea blooms, can cause digestive issues when eaten in large quantities.

Dining out: Not all chefs know their edible flowers, so it’s up to you to educate yourself. Some flowers may be on the plate simply for decoration.

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.

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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.

1. Borage

Both the star-shaped blooms, which come in deep shades of blue, violet and pink, and the leaves of the borage plant offer a flavor reminiscent of cucumber, with grassy undertones. The flowers can be frozen into ice cubes or sprinkled over soups, salads and dips.

“You can muddle borage leaves like you would mint and make a little cocktail with fermented honey and bittersweet vermouth,” Hoffman said.

“I love borage because to me, it’s cucumber, cucumber, cucumber. So I think caraway, buttermilk, dill and sturgeon … I have a Russian thing going on in the back of my mind.”

2. Nasturtium

The rock star of the edible flower world, the nasturtium also offers a e-for-1 deal, with edible leaves shaped like miniature lily pads and colorful flowers offering a spicy, peppery tang that complements salads, vegetables and pastas as well as heartier proteins. The seeds can also be pickled/ brined to resemble capers.

“They’re really abundant right now in late spring, in the wild as well as homegrown. The leaves, flowers and seeds taste sweet and spicy, just like watercress,” he said.

“What likes watercress on it? You think of beef and heavy meats.”

The pretty flowers range from cream and moonlit yellow to orange, scarlet and deep red.

Hoffman suggests adding them to a white wine vinegar, which will flavor it and transform it into a beautiful yellow or red hue.

3. Lilac and citrus blossoms (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, kumquat)

Hoffman suggests making ice creams or infusing oil with all of these fragrant blooms, especially orange blossoms and lilac.

Use sparingly so they don’t over-perfume the dish.

“Lilacs taste just like they smell, with a little astringency and bitterness, creating a wonderfully elegant balance when paired with the opposites,” Hoffman said.

“They are also perfumy and floral, so the bitterness is a back note that to me is similar to the acquired taste of a Negroni.”

4 . English Lavender

Spicy and perfumed, this culinary strain of lavender can accent both sweet and savory dishes by mingling fresh pine with rosemary citrus notes.

The blooms will complement fish, poultry and vegetables as well as beverages and desserts, especially those made with stone fruit and berries.

“When I was younger, I thought it was too soapy and potpourri,” Hoffman said of lavender.

“But peaches and lavender and honey is such a classic, timeless combination that I fell in love with.”

Another tasty combination created by Hoffman: Summer Heirloom Tomatoes topped with a lavender vinaigrette and the Pennyroyal Farm Laychee cheese and pine nuts.

5. Roses and Tulips

“All roses and tulips are edible if they haven’t been sprayed,” Hoffman said. “For roses, use the petals on plates, in infused vinegar or in a strawberry and rose petal salad with pink peppercorns and basil.”

The petals of roses have a flavor reminiscent of sweet strawberries and green apples, with undertones ranging from mint to spice.

“You can also steep the rosehips and make a syrup out of it, but the petals of the flowers are just the best,” he said.

Tulip petals are sweet, succulent and crisp and taste like a pea shoot. Hoffman suggests placing a little salmon tartare or SHED’s smoked trout rillette inside a petal that is acting as a lettuce cup. Garnish with a little mint.

“Both petals are so velvety and soft,” he said. “There’s really nothing like that texture.”

6. Mexican Marigold and Signet Marigolds

“We’re seeing a lot of the Mexican marigolds now,” Hoffman said.

“They are very anisey, very rich, and pungent in a pleasant way or very off-putting way depending on your likes.”

Hoffman likes to serve Mexican marigolds with a simple roasted chicken with lots of Meyer lemon or a Roast duck.

“The pairing of this pungent herb with a good Russian River Pinot Noit is intoxicating and intense.”

Signet marigolds are great in salads, as they have a citrusy flavor, and can be used as a substitute for saffron.

There are lots of different varieties of marigolds — Tangerine Gem, Lemon Gem and Orange Gem — and the flavor resembles each one’s name.

7. Wild elderflowers

Right now, the wild elderberry bushes are popping into bloom all over Sonoma County.

“For me, their rich, sweet scent is synonymous with early summer,” he said.

“It’s said that summer starts when elder trees burst into flower and ends in late August when the berries are ripe.”

The tiny white flowers have a sweet taste and are commonly used in Europe to make infused beverages and syrups.

“They have this wonderful flavor of muscat grape and nutmeg, and I love them in any dish that includes rhubarb,” he said.

“Because the flowers are so small, it’s fun to coat a perfect sphere of ice cream with them, making it look like an inside-out snow SHED, the bar program also infuses the elderflowers into a simple syrup that is used to make their own version of St. Germain, a liqueur flavored with elderflowers.

8. Snow Pea, Snap Pea or Garden Pea flowers

Although sweet pea flowers are poisonous and are harmful to digest in large quantities, the flowers of the climbing Snow, Snap or Garden pea vines planted in back-yard gardens and farm cover crops are delicious to eat.

The white, pink or purple blossoms offers the same, sweet flavor of a fresh pea and look beautiful on the plate. Pair them with spring salads made with radishes, asparagus dishes and pasta.

9. Cucumber and squash blossoms

The cucumber blossoms tastes like cucumbers and can be pickled.

“We try not to pick all the flowers too early in the year because we really want cucumbers,” he said.

“It’s important to try to pick male and female flowers evenly, so the bees can transfer the male flower pollen to the females, and eventually a cucumber will emerge.”

Once the season advances, however, the flowers can be picked more liberally. “We usually have cucumbers coming out our ears,” he said.

A giant among of culinary flowers, all squash blossoms are edible — both summer and winter squash.

The texture is somewhat crisp, with a sweet, zucchini-like flavor. They are perfect for stuffing or deep frying — or both. They are also delicious baked on top of focaccia or pizza.

10. Scented geraniums, lemon verbena and balms

The delicate flowers of the scented geraniums carry the flavors and scent of each particular fruit-scented geraniums, from apricot and apple to lemon and strawberry.

“It’s a really lovely connection with butter lettuces and little gems,” he said.

“Geraniums and watermelon is one of my favorite combinations in the world.”

The tiny, off-white blossoms of the lemon verbena taste lemony and are often used to make tea and to accent flans and custards.

“They are so tiny that we will just sprinkle them lightly over a salad or ice cream,” Hoffman said.

“You get a tiny little burst of lemon.”

On a hot summer day at home, Hoffman will muddle lemon verbena into a cocktail made with either No. 209 Gin made in San Francisco or a light, aperatif such as Jardesca made in Sonoma.

“Balms are, hands down, some of my favorite plants to have in the garden,” he said.

“Bees and butterflies seem to live alongside them in a harmonious state … the flowers are intensely flavored with mint and oregano notes. They are really wonderful with many, different preparations of lamb.”

The following recipes are from Perry Hoffman, culinary director of the Healdsburg SHED.

Charred Cucumber Salad with Yogurt, Nasturtiums, Marigold and Watercress

Makes 6 servings as an appetizer

8 Persian cucumbers

2 cups good-quality Greek yogurt or Lebne (plain)

10 radishes

2 limes

30 watercress leaves

20 marigold leaves (Tangerine gem variety)

25 cucumbers flowers

25 borage blossoms

4 mint flowers

7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons Jacobson Sea Salt

1 tablespoon nigella seed (toasted and ground)

Place six of the cucumbers on a very hot, wood or gas grill, very close to the coals or heat source. Do not cook for more than 5 minutes to avoid overcooking.

Cucumbers should be 75 percent charred on the outside. Do the same with the radishes. Removed charred cucumbers and radishes from the grill and let cool for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, mix 2 tablespoons olive oil with all of the yogurt and season with a pinch of salt. Using a mandolin, thinly shave the two remaining cucumbers.

To plate: Using a spoon, divide the yogurt mixture equally between your plates. Slice the charred cucumbers into desired shapes.

Slice the charred radishes lengthwise down the middle. Divide the cut cucumbers and radishes between all the plates. Garnish with all the flowers and greens.

Using a microplane, zest the limes over th top of each dish, then squeeze lime juice over each dish. Drizzle with olive oil, sea salt and nigella seeds.

Jardesca is an aperatif made from a blend of three white wines, eau de vie and 10 botanicals.

It is made in Sonoma and available at Wilibee’s Wine & Spirits and Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa, Kenwood and Glen Ellen Village markets, and Big John’s Market in Healdsburg, among other outlets.

Jardesca Rose with Plums

Makes 1 serving

6 sprigs Lemon Verbena

3 ounces Jardesca

2 ounces plum juice

1/2 ounce rose simple syrup (see note below)

1/2 ounce lemon juice

2 dashes rose bitters

— Fresh rose petals

— Slices fresh plum

— Basil leaves

— Splash of soda water

Shake first nine ingredients together in a shaker with ice. Pour shaker into a Collins glass. Top with a float of soda water.

To make rose simple syrup: Place equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to a simmer and stir in rose petals.

Cook for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and let steep for 10 more minutes. Strain syrup through a fine sieve into a glass jar and let cool. Store in fridge for up to a month.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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