Not long ago, we asked a roster of California chefs known to set trends what the next food rage would be.
Now we know.
The kind you put on a plate not only to look at, but to eat.
Edible flowers have been in use in California for some time--at least since inspiration from French nouvelle cuisine style struck 10 years ago. However, it has been only within the last year that flowers for eating, cooking and gazing have made an impact on the restaurant scene. Now that flowers are here--perhaps to stay--more and more chefs will join the pioneers in developing recipes for their use, adding yet another dimension to the exotic California cuisine. Chefs are beginning to find uses for edible flowers that would amaze culinary historians.
So far, the edible flowers are confined to restaurant use, with only one retail outlet found in Los Angeles so far. Commercial growers, such as Pamela North of Paradise Farms, claim that the consumer tide is sure to turn. She believes obstacles, such as the flowers' high cost and the lack of knowledge of their use, will be overcome with the help of chefs, who, in large measure, are society's educators to the dining public.
For most restaurants watching food costs, the prices of these charming buds are still prohibitive. A pint-size basket of flowers, after all, kept alive by steeping them in a reservoir of moistened foam or immersing them in water, is costly--from $3.75 to $25 per basket in some cases, depending on the species and difficulty of growing them.
But the cost does not seem to deter some chefs, who may complain about the high prices but still use the flowers.
Michael Roberts of Trumps, Wolfgang Puck of Spago, Laurent Quenioux of Seventh Street Bistro, and chefs at Bernard's at the Biltmore, Sheraton and Hilton hotels, Hotel Bel-Air, Bocca's and the Del Coronado Hotel are among those who have met the culinary challenges of edible flowers.
Some chefs use them chiefly as garnishes you can also eat, whereas others, such as Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of City restaurant, prefer to find flavoring uses for them.
A lucky few, such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, simply grow them.
Most chefs have mixed feelings about flowers' usefulness as a flavoring since most flowers are mild-tasting and without the impact of a true flavoring agent such as herbs or even the vegetables from which most come. Some flowers are not particularly pleasant to eat, but make a good conversation piece.
Here are notes on uses of flowers as we've found them at various restaurants and some of the comments from the chefs who use them.
At Trumps restaurant, chef Roberts discusses nasturtiums with night chef Dean Mellor: "What? Fifteen dollars for a handful of nasturtiums? I'd rather pick them from my neighbor's yard at those prices."
Never mind, it was just talk. The nasturtiums at $15 a pint appeared on a plate of shrimp, not only to set it off but to nibble on.
"Flowers are very nice, but I don't think there is any great taste sensation. It's totally a visual effect and a novelty. You judge them as you would any other ingredient," Roberts said.
At Trumps, nasturtium blossoms are used in salads, with dressings. Zucchini blossoms are used in traditional ways, stuffed with ricotta cheese, dusted with flour and sauteed.
"Every once in a while, I'll add white dried lily buds to sauces or pastas," Roberts said.
At Spago, Wolfgang Puck and cook Barbara Figueroa decided to press nasturtium flowers into pasta and use the leaves for making sauce.
"This is not a new idea. Italians do the same with basil and other herbs. We just thought the nasturtium leaves, which are especially flavorful, would be a nice change," Figueroa said.
Started in a Garden
Alice Waters, often referred to as the "mother of California cuisine," probably was the first to inspire other chefs to use flowers in cooking and food presentation. She began to use nasturtiums and violas from her backyard herb garden 10 years ago.
"I was in desperation for something to garnish a soup, so I just went out in our backyard where nasturtiums were growing wildly and picked some. The blossoms were so pretty on the soup I decided to use them more often," she explained.
When plum blossom season arrived, the blossoms were used to flavor ice cream. A French recipe for acacia blossoms remembered from her stay in Provence inspired acacia blossom fritters.
"Now we have an edible flower garden filled with rose geraniums, violas, pansies, deep red nasturtiums, borage and many others that make great confetti on salads when combined. I love to combine blue, yellow, pink and red rose petals and sprinkle them over a chiffonade salad. I also sprinkle them on deviled eggs and on butter for fish," she said.
A necessary precaution, however, is to learn the strengths and weakness of the flowers.
"Some have good flavor, but others are not pleasant to eat. I prefer to integrate them into a dish, rather then decorate with them for the sake of decorating," she said.