For RDs who focus on communicating through food, whether it be with culinary demonstrations, recipe development, food blogging, or live television segments, presentation is everything. A key element of success is inviting the audience to eat with their eyes and stir interest in trying something new. An easy way to elevate any food presentation and provide an element of whimsy is to use edible flowers from the garden. It may come as a surprise to you and clients that these flowers taste as good as they look! Consider any of the following blooms:
Nasturtium: These flowers grow in an array of warm and sunny hues, which makes them pop when served on top of anything lush and green. They have a peppery, spicy flavor similar to that of arugula. Nasturtium make an interesting addition to rice paper rolls, savory vinaigrettes, grilled vegetable platters, and salads. While some varieties can be grown as a perennial in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9 through 11 (click here for more information on these zones), most are grown annually and produce summer blooms.
Rose hips: While all rose petals are edible, the flavor will depend on the type, color, and soil conditions. They make a lovely garnish for desserts, such as puddings, parfaits, and frozen treats. Sprinkle the petals on salads, freeze them in ice cube molds, or infuse their flavor into syrup reductions, jams, and spreads. Be sure to remove the white portion of petals before use in food, as it can taste bitter.
Zucchini blossoms: The bright and cheery flowers of the zucchini plant are common on Italian menus and traditionally stuffed with cheese or baked onto a pizza. Nowadays, you can easily find them for sale at local farmers markets. They have a mild, slightly sweet taste and make a beautiful addition to cheese boards, frittatas, or omelets. Be sure to only pick male flowers, noted by their single stamen, as the female blossoms with multiple stamens in the center are the ones that bear fruit.
Borage: One of the few blue flowers that are easy to grow, these star-shaped blooms have flavor reminiscent of cucumber. They can be a lovely addition to fresh salads and agua frescas, and can be sprinkled on top of a fruit platter or frozen into ice cubes. Borage is an annual that blooms in June and July and can make a wonderful companion plant for tomatoes and strawberries.
Calendula: More commonly known as the pot marigold, the bright yellow petals of this flower are easy to scatter like confetti on top of grain dishes, soups, and salads. When mixed into a hot dish, the petals will impart the rich color of saffron, making it an affordable alternative to the spice. Saute some petals in olive oil to infuse it with saffronlike color and flavor before drizzling on top of grilled meats. Calendula is easy to grow from seed in a sunny spot and makes a great companion plant for vegetable gardens.
Pansies: The sweet flavor and beauty of pansy petals make them an ideal garnish for breakfast dishes, salads, and desserts. They are one of the few edible blooms available in the colder months and are easy to grow from seed by starting indoors during the late summer. The petals are perfect for pressing into soft cheeses, infusing color into syrups as a natural food coloring and adding interest to beverages.
Hibiscus: The petals, leaves, and calyxes (fruit) of the edible Hibiscus sabdariffa flower have a nice sweet-tart flavor profile, similar to that of a cranberry. The flavor lends itself well to many beverages, with tea being the most popular. Dried hibiscus petals make a nice garnish for desserts and fruit salads, and also can be used to infuse flavor into syrups.
When selecting and preparing edible flowers, avoid using flowers grown for landscape, as they likely have been sprayed with chemicals unsafe for use in edible plants. It’s best to grow flowers for culinary use from seed or purchase them from a reputable edible flower producer. Clean flowers by washing in cold water and placing on a paper towel to dry. If not using immediately, refrigerate flowers in an airtight container wrapped in a damp paper towel for up to a few days after harvesting.
— Whitney Reist, RD, Chef, is a culinary dietitian with professional training from Le Cordon Bleu. She specializes in recipe development and food photography, and provides personal chef services to her local community in the greater Nashville area. Reist loves to share recipes and inspiration for gaining confidence in the kitchen through her food blog, www.sweetcayenne.com. Her husband, who’s also a dietitian and fellow foodie, recently joined her in completing the Master Gardener program through the University of Tennessee. On any given weekend, you can find them gardening, grilling, practicing photography, and trying out new restaurants.