Time to stop and eat the flowers? It's taken a while for edible flowers to come back into fashion (they were all the rage between the 5th and the 16th centuries). Sure, candied violets, nasturtiums, and marigolds have been gracing our salad plates and desserts for a while now, but it's only been recently that market goers have been embracing the blooms that are becoming more available and doing more with them than just garnish. Larger blossoms get stuffed and fried while others impart their flavors to special vinegars, custards and sauces. The vendors that you go to for your lettuces, herbs, and summertime squashes currently have an abundance of blooms available for the picking. The biggest selection starts now and then dwindles with the encroaching summer heat.
Squash blossoms are the largest of the springtime edibles, artichokes notwithstanding, with conveniently large cavities and delicate and long folding petals that allow for a generous stuffing. Or do as the March cover of Saveur suggests and have them adorn your pizza in a golden starburst dotted with luscious blobs of creamy burrata. Right now you can find either the male blossoms, or the female blossoms complete with immature and incredibly tender baby squash attached. Be sure to rinse out the well of the flower carefully – bugs like to nestle within – and then allow to drip dry cup-side down on a towel. Their taste is subtle and a little like the squash they would have eventually created, with the added complexity of the expected floral aroma.
It used to be that when an herb or lettuce bolted, or went to flower, the crop was done and given up for useless. Today herb and vegetable flowers, like sage, arugula, and choi blossoms have redefined what's actually sellable at the market, joining the already popular lavender and chamomile blossoms as desirable flavor enhancers. Sage blossoms have a hint of the heavy hitting and almost mentholy power of the herb, making them great for fish and pork marinades.
The tiny white windmill flowers of the arugula plant have the peppery kick that their leaves are so well known for, with an almost rose-like florality and a touch of nuttiness that makes them a natural addition to a salad. We also like them garnishing a soft goat cheese spread onto a steamed artichoke heart, perhaps overdoing the springtime metaphor a bit, but with appetizing and attractive results.
The North Carolina University Department of Horticulture has a helpful partial list of edible flowers. This is important info, as not all flowers are meant for culinary purposes. You can generally assume that the flowers of edible herbs and plants are safe and it's a good idea to become familiar with their look, feel, and taste. In most cases they'll have the dialed-down flavors of their intended crop and the added benefit of color and presentation.
But some, like savory blossoms, are more intense, even peppery and hot; or nutty and sweet, like artichokes and sunflower buds. Now is the time to experiment, though you should always purchase your edible flowers from your usual edible vendors. Flowers, edible or otherwise, that are grown strictly for presentation and bouquets are sometimes sprayed liberally with various chemicals to preserve their blooms' looks from hungry bugs. Great for the vase, but not for the body.