It happened. April showers brought May flowers and now my patio garden is overflowing with bright buds. In between my cabbages and red leaf lettuce, bright egg yolk colored marigolds liven up an otherwise green bed. Next to pots with vertically reaching but still fruit-less cherry tomatoes and hot pepper plants, red Gerber daisies open up to catch the sun’s rays. Miniature roses, an ever-growing hydrangea plant, and other various potted petals keep company with the herbs turning my urban kitchen garden into something as beautiful to look at as it one day will be pleasurable to eat from.
As I wait for the vegetables in my newly planted garden to start producing, it often slips my mind that many of the colorful beautifying elements of my garden are just as edible as their green neighbors. Flowers, in fact, can be an ingredient in just about every part of a meal, from a warming beverage to a candied dessert. With so many edible petals to choose from, flowers in food offer aromas, flavors, and colors not to be found anywhere else in the produce aisle.
A good introductory flower that is abundant in farmers' markets this time of year is the squash blossom. What we find in the market is the more abundant, fruitless male blossoms of zucchini or other summer squash plants. If it has not already been done for you, the stamens need to be removed before cooking and the stem removed or trimmed down depending on its use in the recipe. The most common way we see squash blossoms on restaurant tables these days is stuffed with a mixture of cheeses, battered and deep fried. When the stems are removed, the remaining petals can be chopped and mixed into a summer squash risotto during the final minutes of cooking, or sautéed with some sweet corn for an intriguing quesadilla filling. Left whole, these yellow-gold beauties make a visual statement as a topping for fresh mozzarella and herb pizza as it emerges from the oven.
Herbal teas are no stranger to the many uses of flowers. Chamomile soothes and lulls to sleep. Lemon verbena will brighten a summer iced tea with its herbal, floral, and citrusy tang. But my favorite floral beverage of the moment has to be hibiscus tea. Fresh, these large fuchsia blooms with yellow stamens make one think of Hawaiian shirts and tropical sunsets.
Outside of its vacation connotations, the dried blossom is consumed as a tonic, both hot and cold, in many areas of the world, from Latin America, to Thailand, to Africa and the Middle East. When steeped in hot water the blossom produces a tart, floral beverage, with an intensely dark pink color. Rich in Vitamin C and minerals, hibiscus is also thought to lower blood pressure. The tart flavor can be mellowed out with sugar, enhanced with the natural sweetened stevia, or punched up with rum for a more adult beverage.
Candied petals are one of the more common ways we see flowers used as food. Pansies and rose petals are both edible and, if not completely delicious to eat, at least offer a beautiful, natural twist to decorating desserts. When making en masse, say for decorating a wedding cake, petals are dipped in warm water mixed with unflavored gelatin before given a dusting of super fine sugar and left to dry on baking sheets over night. For smaller quantities, brush egg white onto petals with a small pastry brush, sprinkle on sugar, shaking off the excess, and set out to dry. Once dried, try candied rose petals to brighten up vanilla butter cream cupcakes or top pansies on custardy crème brulee for flavor and color.
A squash, though rarely beautiful is always edible. Whereas its flower, always beautiful is often forgotten as being equally edible. While the rest of the garden takes its time to bear its fruit, sunny Marigold flowers will add spiciness to store-bought baby lettuce salad, lavender blooms from chive plants will impart their oniony flavor and visual appeal as garnish on spring pea or asparagus soup, and even the ubiquitous red rose might find new life in a candy coat atop a chiffon cake.
While April’s showers have gone, the summer garden is not yet here. But May’s flowers will beautify my both patio and my plate as a tasty twist to spring’s menu.
Saffron, Zucchini and Squash Blossom Risotto Recipe
Ready in: under 30 minutes
* 7 cups vegetable broth
* 1 large pinch saffron
* 4 tablespoons olive oil
* 1 medium onion
* 2 cups Arborio rice
* 1/2 cup white wine
* 3 tablespoons butter
* 2 medium zucchini
* 12 large squash blossoms, stems removed
* 4 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
* Salt and pepper
Heat broth in a medium pot to a boil then reduce to a simmer and keep warm. Remove one cup of broth to a small bowl and add saffron.
In a separate pan, heat olive oil over a medium flame. Chop onion and add to oil. Saute onion for 4-5 minutes until translucent. Add rice and saute for another two minutes until rice is lightly toasted. Add white wine to rice and let cook until wine is almost completely absorbed. Add simmering vegetable stock 1/2 cup at a time stirring until mostly absorbed but some liquid remains. Stir often.
Meanwhile, heat butter in a saute pan over a medium high flame. Cut zucchini into a small dice. Add zucchini to butter along with some salt and pepper. Saute for 3 minutes until tender but still crisp. After about 15 minutes of slowly adding broth to the rice, add the reserved saffron broth along with the par-cooked zucchini.
Remove the stems from the squash blossoms and cut into 1 inch pieces. Stir the blossoms into the rice and season the dish with salt and pepper. After about 20 minutes of total cooking time the rice should be al dente with a creamy sauce. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese. Serve immediately.