UF Research Helps Tasty Flowers Emerge as Haute Cuisine

zucchini squash blossoms
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As executive chef at one of Florida’s most popular resorts, Anthony Sicignano must know virtually every form of cooking to direct nearly 3,000 daily meals. This season, however, he also has to be part florist.

“I think a few years ago, a lot of the public wouldn’t have been comfortable eating flowers, but squash blossoms have been a real delicacy in Italian cooking for centuries,” said Sicignano, of The Breakers Palm Beach. “Now, at certain times, people just can’t get enough of them.”

The large, edible flowers that grow on some squash varieties have experienced a surge in popularity in the last few years, especially in early spring. The haute cuisine trend represents more than another Easter item on menus.

Thanks in part to researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, it’s become another valuable source of income for Florida farmers.

“We get a couple of cents for each squash,” said Nancy Roe, who operates a 1,000-acre farm near Boca Raton. “But for each blossom, we can get fifty cents.”

The flowers have yet to become a substantial source of income for farmers like Roe, simply because they can’t currently grow enough.

In the past, squash farmers have focused on plants that produce female flowers – the ones that would someday produce squash. As a result, these plants would often only have one or two male flowers, the kind harvested as a food item.

Russell Nagata, an associate professor at the IFAS Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade, is working with farmers like Roe to change that. In 2005, Nagata and his colleagues began evaluating which types of squash can deliver both vegetables and flowers for maximum profit.

Overall, zucchinis seem to deliver the most bang for the buck – however, the flower business isn’t always just about volume. It can also be about timing.

Demand for the blossoms only comes at certain times, and anticipating those times and having flowers available can be tricky.

“Sometimes the plants are ready to do in the winter months,” Nagata said. “And you can imagine that that’s not always the time when people see flowers on their plate.”

To further complicate matters, the blossoms only have a shelf life of one to two days before they become useless to chefs, who are highly selective about the bright yellow-orange colors and firm texture the flowers must possess.

“There is more demand for these flowers now because people are more educated than ever about food because of the popularity of food shows on television,” executive chef Sicignano said. “So, the exciting part is that we can now use what many would consider nontraditional food items in our cuisine. The challenging side is that those items have to be up to expectations of a more informed dining audience.”

Raw, the flowers offer a refreshing, almost cucumber-like taste. Uncooked, the flowers are commonly used as a garnish on main dishes.

“But that’s probably the most boring thing you can do with them,” Sicignano said.

With a background in Italian cooking from his experience at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the chief prefers to prepare the blossoms as appetizers – such as stuffed with a crab and corn blend and then tempura fried.

“Both diners and farmers have become more educated, and now many chefs are excited because we can offer the types of dishes we’ve been hiding away on our own home dinner tables for years,” Sicignano said.

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