Flowers add flair to unforgettable dishes

Friday, May 10, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 19

Spring’s velvet riot of blossoms brings a welcome counterpunch to the 40 shades of green that come to drape the landscape. There’s more than beauty, though, in the layers of petals.

On warm nights and mornings, a perfume drifts on the humid air, intoxicating, some just sweet enough, simple at times, while others are as complex as a mockingbird’s songbook.

One of those blooms I have a love-hate relationship with is the tonic and fragrance of the honeysuckle, the invasive bane of landscapers. It’s an underbrush bully, taking over and stealing the light from native plants. When it’s in full bloom, though, it sends heady, invisible waves of its namesake scent.

I remember as a child in Jackson, Mississippi, being shown how to pull a glistening drop of nectar from the bottom of the flower, small but so present on the tongue.

There is, however, another. The other night, I was reminded of the raw intoxication that softly cascades from the white sprays of black locust flowers. They are often so high up they avoid notice, their honeyed grace carried off into the canopy. When they drift downward and you catch their smell, though, it stops you in place and draws your eyes upward. Like many things of extraordinary beauty, they are ephemeral and pass too soon.

Smelling those black locust blooms, though, brought me back to a few years ago when I tasted one of the best dishes I have ever had.

Flowers have long been a part of a chef’s arsenal, whether used for a decorative blast of color to break the beige monotony of the plate or integrated as both a visual and olfactory piece of a meal.

That some flowers are edible and can, at times, challenge a diner’s notion of what food is and can be.

Rosewater has long been used in Mediterranean cooking, while elderflower liqueur took the cocktail world by storm more than a decade ago. Creative chefs and Appalachian cooks of thrift know how to preserve magnolia blossoms, a common and readily available resource that for some reason rarely shows up these days.

We eat candied violets and add peppery nasturtium flowers to salads. And who doesn’t enjoy a deep-fried squash blossom stuffed with soft, pungent cheese?

Flowers, shoots and tendrils reminds us of the soft side of spring and growing seasons, of the taste of newness, pale hints of maturity, like an ombre flavor palette for the palate.

Then there’s that dish I’m reminded of every spring. I can’t tell you anything about the rest of the meal, not that it wasn’t good, but this one dish will forever stand out. It erased the short-term flavor memory of everything that came before and left me wanting more of it, and nothing else.

The presentation was rustic and simple but elegant. A single, smoked duck breast sat in the center of a wreath woven from pliant twigs. Tucked in the branches were small sprays of black locust blossoms. We were instructed to eat the flowers with the duck.

Cutting into the breast, cooked russet-brown, you could smell the hickory smoke as the knife passed through the crispy skin that was scored to release the drops of rendered fat. And just a reminder, duck fat can do no wrong.

Eating the salty, rich, smoky red duck meat followed by a bloom or two, created one of the greatest flavor pairings I have ever had. The blossoms, picked weeks earlier, had been pickled in a sweet and sour solution that brought everything forward, especially the heady scent, locked in the pickled flavor that glided through the duck fat.

The inspired dish came from Trevor Moran, the Irish chef who had recently taken over at the Catbird Seat. He wasted little time in discovering the native tastes and smells of his new Tennessee home, his first time in America. It was an exhilarating window into the mind of one of the best chefs the city has seen.

That dish remains impossible for me to forget, especially when the tall, impossibly dense trunks of the black locust trees push forward their blossoms. It’s a call to gather bees and earthbound creatures like us underneath their canopies. It’s a special class of drunkenness that, like Moran’s dish, make you want more, and more.

There’s excitement to report about Moran in the coming weeks about his new restaurant that will serve dumplings and Japanese shave ice. I feel lucky that Moran wasn’t pulled away from Nashville, such is his talent, though many tried. For now, I’m going to savor his ideas, savor the spring, and savor the blossoms and their whiffs of possibility.

Jim Myers is a former restaurant critic, features columnist, hog wrangler, abattoir manager, Tennessee Squire and Kentucky Colonel. Reach him at