In her memoir, “Finding Freedom,” chef Erin French credits her time as a teenager working in the kitchen of her father’s diner in Waldo County as foundational in her development as a cook. There, she learned to grill burgers to a perfectly pink medium-rare, prepare eggs any way a customer wanted them, and deftly dip, dust and fry delicate whole belly clams. Practice makes perfect, after all.

Even on that fast-paced food production line, she took the time to garnish daily specials with nasturtium blossoms she’d collected from her mother’s garden. The bright but delicate orange, pink, red and yellow flowers are pretty to look at and spicy to eat.

The plates French serves now at her much-lauded restaurant, The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, often feature seasonal edible flowers. I’ve not had the pleasure of eating there, but I’ve seen lots of photos. Plus, in her 2017 cookbook of the same name, bee balm blooms, calendula, elderflowers, hibiscus, lavender, lilacs, marigolds, pansies and roses featured prominently as main ingredients and optional garnishes.

A bowl of local salad greens dotted with edible flowers from Mare Brook Farm in Brunswick. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I love using edible blooms … as a garnish or tossing them into salads. They are as delicious as they are beautiful,” French writes. To name just a few flower flavors: purple borage tastes of cucumber, snapdragons are floral but have bitter undertones, calendula petals are tangy, while marigold ones have hints of citrus and spice.

Brunswick private chef and caterer Ali Waks Adams says edible flowers also add texture and dimension to a plate of food. If you have flowering thyme or rosemary or your basil plants have bloomed, sprinkling the blossoms over dishes that feature those same herbs helps build a layered flavor profile.

What struck me about the diner nasturtiums, though, was that the young French was instinctually adding a bit of joyful whimsy to everyday plates of food. Edible flowers needn’t be reserved for special occasion fare. In Maine in the summer, you can add colorful whimsy to your life and plate, three times a day.

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If you have a garden, adding edible flowers to your plates is as easy as snipping a few blossoms while you’re out gathering lettuce for salad or herbs to season your main dish. All edible flowers support local pollinators. The ones you can buy from a growing number of local farmers bringing them to market help support the local food economy. Some farmers produce edible flowers on purpose and sell them for between 30 and 50 cents each, while others offer them as revenue-generating secondary products that grow from existing crops – think chive and squash blossoms, bolted kale, and dill that has gone to seed.

Flower farmers Ryan Ravenscroft and Courtney Mongell of Mare Brook Farm in Brunswick have been growing edible flowers this season and selling them to a small number of chefs in the area to gauge the public’s appetite for them. The couple recently received Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) organic certification to grow them in a larger quantity on a half-acre lot for the 2023 season.

Mongell says they first learned about growing, eating, storing and preserving edible flowers from “Edible Flowers and Leaves” by D. & P. Gamp. But to figure out quickly which flowers in your garden are good to eat, she suggests you check out Johnny’s Selected Seeds organic edible flower collection. For edible wildflowers, I recommend the book “Wild Food: a Complete Guide for Foragers” by British foraging expert Roger Phillips or, more locally, the website of Kennebunkport-based forager Josh Fecteau.

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige presses flattened pansies into freshly baked sugar cookies. They look almost too pretty to eat (but eat them anyway). Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Once you have the flowers in the kitchen, there are many ways to use them. Freeze heartier blooms like calendula into ice cubes to happily keep a summer drink cool. Do as French does, and dip chive blossoms (or daylilies) first in a light batter and then into hot oil and serve the deep fried flowers as an appetizer with a chive aioli. Tuck nasturtiums into rice-paper wrapped summer rolls. Bake marigold petals or whole gem marigolds into savory shortbread. You can candy pretty pansies, but if you don’t want to bother to go through that process, layer whole pressed pansies onto sugar cookies while they are hot, and the heat will effectively melt the petals onto them. Or you can whip dried or fresh petals into compound butter to top grilled meats, fish and vegetables. Check out Saco-based pastry chef Gabrielle Cobe’s Instagram (@bigfish_cakestudio) for amazing ways to decorate a summer cake with them.

Do your part to spread botanical whimsy one plate at a time.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

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Savory shortbread crackers with herbs and tiny gem marigolds. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Flower-topped Savory Shortbread

Makes 18-20 pieces

1¼ cups Maine Grains sifted whole wheat flour
1 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
3 tablespoons, finely minced fresh herbs such as parsley, chives, thyme, dill or rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Whole herbs and pressed gem marigolds for laminating onto the dough

Combine the flour, cheese, herbs, salt and pepper into the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter and 1 teaspoon warm water and pulse the ingredients until they form a crumbly mixture. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and use your hands to form it into a smooth disc. Wrap the dough and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough to a ¼-inch thickness. Lay the whole herbs and flowers out on the dough, leaving about 2 inches between them. Use a rolling pin to press the herbs right into the dough. Use a 2-inch round cookie cutter to cut out circles around each herb or flower. Transfer the cutouts to the prepared baking sheet. Pull the leftover dough into a ball and repeat the process until all the dough is used up.

Bake the shortbread until they are just starting to turn pale golden around the edges, 10-13 minutes. Cool for a few minutes on the sheet pan, then transfer the shortbread to a rack to cool completely. The shortbread will store well in an airtight container for 3-4 days.


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