Fresh & Local Restaurant Trends: Catering to New Tastes

Fresh & Local Restaurant Trends: Catering to New Tastes

Edible Flowers Add New Flavor and Dimension to Culinary CreationsBoutique hotel operators and gourmet restaurant chefs across the nation have discovered the appeal of locally grown seasonal produce and artisanal menu offerings.

If you have not yet encountered a bright blossom on your plate, or sipped a cocktail that features flavorful herb infusions, you may not be frequenting the trendy lounges and upscale eateries in your neighborhood.

Today, it's almost as likely you'll find a nasturtium in your salad as in a curbside planter box. Edible flowers are top sellers for some alternative farmers, and noted chefs across the country have taken the lead in requesting and even cultivating the unusual produce that finds its way onto their menus. Not only have bean flowers and squash blossoms migrated beyond ethnic specialties, but all sorts of flowers are now used not only as garnish, but as popular ingredients for salads, desserts and entrees. One well-known chef even serves much-requested dandelion ice cream with honey.

Growing for the Market

Part of the reason is that finding a flower on a dinner plate is still unusual enough to be memorable. However, the flavor, according to those chefs who love using them, is the prime reason. Flowers reflect the essence of their parent plants, so eating the blossoms of culinary herbs like dill, basil, lavender, chives and cilantro should be no more unusual than eating beet greens or feathery carrot tops and fennel fronds. Americans, however, are not as familiar with the practice as some other cultures, even though it is not new.

Noted restaurants and resorts grow their own herbs, or are supplied by local growers of microgreens and specialty produce. Increasing numbers of schools and hospitals have horticulturists on staff in order to grow at least some of the produce that they use to supply specialty menu needs. In some areas, rooftop gardens and urban farms have become important adjuncts to luxury hotel kitchens. Others work closely with greenhouse growers to assure that, even in the off-season, a supply of fresh, locally-grown produce is maintained. It's new, it's innovative, and all indications are that it's a trend that won't disappear anytime soon.

Reasons for the current popularity of artisanal food and drink are a bit unclear. What is evident is that the growth of farmers markets, backyard farms, alternative agriculture and community gardens has changed the way many people view food. Whether it stems from a reawakened awareness of what is healthful and beneficial, a desire to enhance the visual appeal of food, or a reaction against a food supply that is over-processed and over-controlled, the change is apparent, not only in expensive restaurants and resort venues, but even at neighborhood bistros.

Healthy Cocktails

Another trend toward the unusual is at the cocktail bar. While Mint Juleps and Mojitos will raise no eyebrows these days, a basil-inspired cocktail might. However, it's not just the taste or the wow factor that influences designer drink-makers. It's the health value. Even some beers are herb-infused.

Many popular cooking herbs, as well as fruits and berries, are touted for their anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, health-giving properties. Medical professionals might have something to say about the wisdom of drinking alcohol as a healthy practice, but it's impossible not to notice the more than casual inclusion of herbs like rosemary, various flavored mints, basil and cilantro in alcoholic beverages. Fruit and berry blends are as popular with the addition of spirits as they are at a juice bar, and for some of the same reasons.

In addition, the surprise of a sweet purple viola, a spiky bachelor's button, or a tiny marigold in a drink can prompt great conversations!

The next time you eat out, don't be surprised to find flower petals on the plate rather than in a vase; many old favorites have found their way out of the garden and into the kitchen in Lake County and elsewhere. They're there to taste, not just to look at.

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