As evidenced by the famed photo of Elizabeth Taylor holding a flower, there’s something both glamorous and timeless about a blossom garnish. It’s old-school, yes, but it also seems current (unlike gold leaf)—because flowers are the essence of what’s fresh, and new, and right now. They’re the embodiment of spring cooking.
And we’ve been seeing a lot of them these days, at eateries as far-flung as David Kinch’s Manresa in California and Sean Brock’s McCrady’s in South Carolina. Chefs and home cooks coast-to-coast have been taking advantage of edible flowers. Look for them in grocery stores, packaged in plastic near the fresh herbs, at specialty grocers, online, and dotting farmer’s market stalls.
We spoke to Tyler Gray of Mikuni Wild Harvest, who supplies four-star restaurants nationwide. In addition to specialty items like basil-fed snails, Gray offers dozens of edible flowers. Below are his top 10 biggest sellers, in all their fully-bloomed glory, plus a recipe from Food & Wine Best New Chef Justin Cogley of California’s Aubergine, whom Gray supplies.
Keep an eye peeled for edible flora at the farmers market, use this handy USDA site to find out if they’re local to you, and consider them the next time a plate needs a touch of spring glamour, a certain je ne sais quoi. (And psst, Mother’s Day!)
PansyPhoto credit: StockFood, Misha Vetter
Thanks to their “mildly tangy flavor” and “lovely velvety texture,” Gray says, these are a favorite among mixologists.
Along with pansies, these blooms top the popularity list, according to one of Gray’s suppliers. Gray tells us: “The blossoms are not quite as spicy as the green; they’re slightly sweet with a peppery, spicy finish.” He sees them in both savory and sweet applications, from pizza toppings to candied garnishes.
Photo credit: StockFood, Nikolai Buroh
"Intensely sweet and striking in appearance, with a multitude of shades," says Gray, these are "most often seen [on] desserts."
Slightly different from violets, violas are “tart….beautiful, but tart!” Use them on super-sweet desserts, for balance.
Photo credit: StockFood, Eising Studio
These pumpkin-hued showstoppers are “slightly tangy, even bitter… very common to see used as a garnish in salads.”
Photo credit: StockFood, Nikolai Buroh
Conjuring a thatched hut and Hawaiian daydreams, orchids are “mild, sweet and refreshing…much like the cocktail that you will often find it paired with.”
The spicy green often comes with its bloom, and boasts ”spicy, concentrated Arugula flavor with a nutty finish.” Use them as an accent on seafood preparations.
Photo credit: Alan O’Brien, StockFood
How beautiful are chive blossoms? As is true of the greens, they have “a mild onion aroma and flavor.” Try them where you would use chives, such as on frittatas or potatoes.
Unlike the bulb, these “have a distinct yet mellow garlic flavor; most often they are used to garnish savory dishes.”
"I still remember one of my favorite dishes that was garnished with this blossom," says Gray. "Basil-fed snails with a ramp jus, green almonds, morels and pickled ramp bulbs.” He loves their “awesome cucumber flavor.”
And here’s how to use ‘em, thanks to Aubergine’s Justin Cogley. Of this gorgeous plate of food, he says: “I love this dish because it tastes like spring with the delicate steamed halibut, crunch from the borage leaves, and the cucumber-oyster taste from the borage flowers.”
Halibut with spinach and borage flowers. Photo credit: Justin Cogley, Aubergine.
Halibut with Spinach and Borage Flowers
From Justin Cogley, Restaurant Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel
2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar
24 borage flowers, buds, leaves and stems reserved separately
1 cup spinach
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup celery (about three ribs), diced
2 large Spanish onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
12 anchovies in oil, drained and chopped
2 cups fish stock
6 4-oz. pieces halibut
1. In a saucepan, bring vinegar, sugar, and 2 oz. water to a boil. Remove from heat and let cool 5 minutes. Pour into a bowl containing flower buds and reserve.
2. Meanwhile, cook 1/2 cup borage leaves and spinach in boiling water for 45 seconds. Remove and submerge in a bowl of ice water to stop cooking. Press between towels to remove excess moisture and reserve.
3. With a vegetable peeler, peel two large stems and then cut into 1 inch-pieces. Season with salt, toss in olive oil, and reserve.
4. In a large saucepan over low heat, sauté the celery, onions, and garlic in olive oil for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are translucent. Add the fish stock, bring to a simmer, and cook for 15 minutes. Add anchovies, remove from heat, and let stand for 15 more minutes. Strain and reserve the liquid.
5. Season the fish with kosher salt. Cook in a steamer for around 15 minutes, or the fish is not opaque and is firm to the touch. Remove from heat, squeeze lemon juice over top, and season with Maldon salt.
6. Plate the fish, topping with stems and then flower buds. Finish by pouring the sauce around the fish. Serve immediately.