Edible flowers are back in bloom for some chefs

Two summers ago, Steffan Howard was driving through the Beach when a colorful sight made him stop the car.

In a side yard off Woodbine Avenue, he spotted a garden full of orange day lilies. “I did a U-turn and parked beside the flowers to get a closer look,” says Howard. “They were tall, probably about four feet. There were well over 300 in the yard. I had never seen such a huge batch of lilies in the city before.”

As Howard tried to figure out how he could get his hands on some of the bulbs, a woman’s head, he says, “popped up between some of the lilies. I told her that she probably has the most and prettiest lilies in Toronto. Then I asked her if she had ever tasted any of the bulbs.

“She laughed and said something about squirrel or raccoon food,” he adds. “She was very surprised.” In 40 years of growing lilies, she had never heard of someone wanting to cook and eat them.

Refusing Howard’s offers to purchase some bulbs, the woman – who introduced herself as Janice – invited him to help himself, although she did accept a dozen fresh-picked apples in trade.

For Howard, a Toronto chef with more than 30 years of experience, the find was serendipitous, as he had recently cooked with lilies for the first time. Blown away by the flavor – lilies taste a bit like cucumber – he started looking for a good source of organic day lilies when he literally stumbled upon them while on his way to a Forbes wild foods event.

Once solely used by experts like Howard, who incorporate them in dishes at high-end restaurants, flowers are becoming a part of a growing number of Toronto foodies’ meals.

People who are close to their food have cooked with flowers for years, says culinary arts teacher and former restaurateur Andrew Mavor. “Gardeners often utilize things like blossoms that might not otherwise find their way to the plate.” Like many ingredients, they span cultures, he says: the seasonal dish of ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms is an Italian classic; banana blossom is a staple in Asian cooking; elderflower is a common ingredient in European beverages; and in North America wild rose has for centuries been used as both food and medicine.

It's important to wash and dry flowers before eating.

Like any trend, the popularity of edible flowers is cyclical, says Howard, waxing (in the early- to mid-’90s) and waning before going mainstream. “People’s palates are getting more adventurous,” he says, “but also their general knowledge of cuisine, gardening and foraging has intensified greatly, which allows for more exposure to edible flowers.”

A forager with the Mycological Society of Toronto, Mavor has picked wild edibles like rose and elderflower, as well as flowering plants like wild onion and garlic. “There are many more edible flowers than one would think,” says Mavor, who has used them in many different cooking techniques over the years. Howard lists his favorites his as nasturtiums, marigolds, mint blossoms, hibiscus, roses, pansies, sunflower, chive flower, cilantro and thyme flower and the commonly used dill flower and fennel fronds. Other edibles include brassica and maple tree blossoms, violets, bergamot and basil. Mavor recommends orchids, which are available year-round, and during the summer, arugula or radish while they are blossoming.

A former professional musician, Mavor wasn’t always so knowledgeable about flowers as food. In Bangkok for a gig in 2005, he entered his hotel room his to find orchids covering the bed. “The minder from the club who was looking after me grabbed one and ate it, then theatrically keeled over. I was panicked,” recalls Mavor, who now gets a laugh out of the prank. “I was jet-lagged and the thought of trying to explain anything to a paramedic or the police was super frightening.” He decided to try them himself. “Lightly crunchy with a slight cucumber taste,” he says. “I loved it.”

Ida Pusateri of Pusateri's Fine Foods with a variety of edible flowers.

Obviously, not all flowers are safe to eat (“some are toxic, some simply taste awful,” Mavor says), but the ones that are have different flavors and medicinal and nutritional values: many contain vitamin C; hibiscus moderately lowers blood pressure; dandelions are a source of vitamins A, C and K; lavender is known for its calming effect; and nasturtium flowers provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

“Some flowers have a very neutral taste, while others are so flavourful that you have to be careful not to overdo it,” Howard says. “A rose tastes as you would imagine: very fragrant, gently sweet, like berries or green apples. The darker the rose, the more intense the flavor.”

For those wanting to try flowers, Howard suggests checking out restaurants in Toronto that include them in their dishes. Sofia at 99 Yorkville offers an Insalata Di Cicoria, a dandelion-based salad; Enoteca Sociale at 1288 Dundas St. W. has Fave e Ciccoria with dandelion; Byblos at 11 Duncan St. features hamachi with pomegranate flower; Shook Kitchen at 77 Portland has kreplach dumpling with saffron and sumac; and Off the Hook Fishbar at 749 Broadview sells vegan fish and chips with deep-fried banana blossom.

Sourcing your own is surprisingly simple, as farmer’s markets and local shops, like Pusateri’s Fine Foods, Summerhill Market and even some Loblaws, sell edible flowers.

Ida Pusateri of Pusateri's Fine Foods.

While flowers may seem daunting at first, they’re easy to incorporate into foods. “Use them as a garnish on top of dishes,” says Ida Pusateri, owner of Pusateri’s. She suggests wielding elongated tweezers to position petals delicately and strategically and using flowers to add color to salads, carafes and punch bowls. Petals can also be frozen into ice cubes, candied and used to decorate pastries. “If you’re a baker,” she says, “there is an easy opportunity to sprinkle them over a lovely frosted cake or cupcake.”

For his work as executive chef for the Design Exchange and chef with the Scale Hospitality Group, Steffan Howard buys organic. For his own use his, he grows edible flowers and blossoms in his garden and forages for chicory flowers, clover flowers and oxeye daisies in rural ditches.

Preparation depends on the flower. Most benefit from minimal handling – more delicate blooms are often scattered for visual effect, while hardier ones tend to be marinated or chopped and thrown in with the rest of the dish – and all can be eaten raw. “The water content is so high,” Mavor says, “that cooking breaks them down too far to be desirable.”

The results can be incredible. In Chile, pre-pandemic, Howard and his wife his enjoyed copihue (the country ‘s national flower) stuffed with crab, and he ‘s also served flowers to delighted clients. At a backyard wedding north of Oshawa, each of the 50 guests were given a small pair of scissors as part of their place setting, to cut their own living pansies, posies, marigold, baby roses and daisies for their chef-prepared salad. “It created a very fun discussion about the flavors they were experiencing,” he says.

As for Janice the lily grower, “she said to not be shy to drop by if I was ever craving more lilies in the summers to come,” Howard says. Recalling the success he ‘d had with his find his – he served the flowers with whitefish, sturgeon and caviar – he says, “I ‘ll be going to say hello to my lily friend next July.”


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