You might think that the fragrant rose petals, peppery nasturtiums and citrusy marigolds on your plates are a relatively new trend in upscale restaurants. But think again.
Centuries ago, the ancient Greeks and Romans were using edible flowers to enhance food, and the early Incas, Aztecs and Hindus were using them in their rituals. Nineteenth-century Victorians used rose petals to sweeten desserts and other dishes.
“Edible flowers are our friends,” says Cafe Pasqual’s owner, Katharine Kagel, who has long used them in her restaurant as well as her home kitchen. “They’re exciting gems and jewels that make life worth living. My enchantment began during one dinner when I was eight years old. After a salad came to the table, flowers from the garden were rubbed and scattered over the salad. That’s when I saw how exciting the tiny addition of a plant can be.”
Kagel is passionate about edible plants, and she uses everything from squash blossoms and snapdragons to calendula, chrysanthemum, borage and more. “I always grow marigolds because they are so beautiful,” she says. “Big or small ones in yellow, orange or mixed colors can be taken apart and sprinkled right on a salad. Calendula is the same. And chrysanthemum — I love chrysanthemum tea in the fall, when what you want is hot tea made with chrysanthemum leaves.”
One best-selling dish at Cafe Pasqual’s features locally grown, freshly picked squash blossoms stuffed with herbed cheese. “We make about fifty stuffed squash blossoms a day at Pasqual’s,” Kagel says. “We use goat cheese with thyme, tarragon or basil — any aromatic herb is lovely. We fill the blossom with cheese and twist the ends. When we cook it, we use organic panko [bread crumbs] and sauté the blossom in half butter and half olive oil. Then we serve it with a tomato salsa that has a little bit of jalapeño in it. These are so popular.”
Nasturtiums are on Pasqual’s menu, perhaps because they have been part of Kagel’s life for many years. “When I grew up in Berkeley, every spring my father and I would plant nasturtiums in our front yard that would spill over the wall,” she recalls. “It went the whole length of the yard. I adore nasturtium. It’s hard to grow here because it requires a lot of water. But I love it because you can use the flower in a salad, and it’s beautiful. It comes in every possible color. But my favorite part is the leaf, which you can stuff with pork and mushrooms, and bake with a little white wine. It has a wonderful natural peppery flavor. It’s kind of an end-of-season dish: you need big leaves, and nasturtium leaves are big at the end of the season.”
At the Santa Fe bistro and wine shop, Arroyo Vino, the marigolds, bachelor buttons, nasturtiums and other edible flowers used in their food and drinks grow outside the kitchen door in the restaurant’s large garden. Executive Chef Allison Jenkins creatively uses marigold to adorn seared scallops and creamed corn. She also presses brightly colored flowers into dough to make laminated pasta and uses them to add a bouquet of color to salads and compound butter.
“Our chef likes working with flowers for many reasons,” says Arroyo Vino restaurant manager and beverage director Hannah d’Errico. “They are beautiful and bring color to dishes. They offer pops of unexpected flavors — nasturtiums and arugula flowers are spicy, marigolds are earthy and bachelor buttons have a touch of sweetness.” She continues, “Flowers are a part of the cycle of growth in the garden. Working with them ties us more fully into that cycle. In cocktails, when used whole, they provide beautiful decorative elements. Edible flowers are largely used as garnish, but I have made shrubs [concentrated syrups that combine fruit, sugar and vinegar, and sometimes herbs and spices] from certain flowers as well.”
Bright bachelor buttons garnish d’Errico’s tropical/tiki cocktail creation, called Lei Me Down, which is loosely based on a piña colada. It’s made with rum, banana, coconut, falernum, allspice dram, lime and bachelor buttons.
And speaking of bananas, did you know that they produce edible blossoms? “I love banana blossoms,” says Hue-Chan Karel, Open Kitchen’s chef-owner. She incorporated them into her seared duck breast with banana blossom salad for the 5th Annual Superchefs Dinner, held in 2019 to benefit Cooking with Kids. (Cooking with Kids is a nonprofit organization that provides hands-on food and nutrition programs for nearly 5,000 Santa Fe public school students in sixth grade and below.)
Karels is also a fan of rose petals. “I have memories of growing up in Vietnam, where we had many rose bushes, and my mother telling me that eating rose petals soothes a sore throat. Now, I understand rose petals contain Vitamin C, are a potent antioxidant nutrient and can enhance moods. I love the beautiful colors and healthful benefits of these flowers.”
Edible flowers may be tiny, but they bring us immense gifts — from beguiling flavors, colors and textures to potent health benefits. The next time you savor marigolds, nasturtiums, rose petals or other edible flowers, take a moment to marvel at their versatility. It may just prompt you to plant a colorful, edible garden of your own.
Lynn Cline is the author of The Maverick Cookbook: Iconic Recipes & Tales from New Mexico. She has written for The New York Times, Bon Appétít and numerous other publications. She also hosts Cline’s Corner, a weekly radio show on KSFR 101.1 FM.