The Nasturtium – Queen Of Garnish
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them”Henri Matisse
If you are looking for a bit of instant visual and flavour pizzazz the nasturtium is the answer to your prayers. Many are in-your-face, eat your heart out Easy Jet, orange in colour – the others are equally indiscreet hues of yellow and red. For a flower, the nasturtium is a large rude trumpet shape. Its name comes from a Latin combination of ‘nasus’ for nose, and ‘tortus’ meaning twisted to describe the immediate reaction of many to their spicy, peppery taste. You can use them wherever a recipe calls for rocket or watercress. Chef Josh Overington at Le Cochon Aveugle in York uses them to flavour an ice cream which he serves with, according to Marina O’Loughlin writing in The Guardian, a pumpkin and roast onion soup of ‘celestial smoothness’.
The plant is native to Peru and they go back a long way – the Incas used them in salads.
The bad news is that, although tougher than they look, they are still a bit delicate: if you are buying them as flowers for garnish they won’t last longer than a day or two. The good news is that they are dead easy to grow. Amazon Jewel or African Queen are some of the most dramatic in terms of luminosity – they come in all sorts of gorgeous colours. Both are climbers so they will wind conveniently around something else. So picking them straight from the vine is a cinch – easier than buying in fact.
The flowers, or course, are the main event, but you can also use the leaves and the seeds.
The pickled seeds are nutty and peppery. Supposedly, when pickled, they can be used as an alternative to capers. I’m a bit dubious about this personally. In my view capers are better fresh, or at least preserved in salt (rinsed in milk when you want to use them) – the ones in brine are horrible. In any case the seeds should not be used in large quantities as they are high in oxalic acid.
Nasturtiums flower from June to October.
Pickled nasturtium seeds
Cover with salt and leave for three or four hours to take out the moisture. Rinse, and put in a small sterilised jar (go here to find out how). Cover with cider vinegar. They keep in the fridge for about six months.
“Just when the petals have fallen off my nasturtium flowres I put the seeds into a little bottle of spiced vinegar. This transforms them into pickled ‘capers’ (a good imitation) in a week.”Kathleen Le Riche, Cooking Alone
In a wide-mouthed Kilner jar put five beautiful nasturtium blossoms and add a cup (240ml) of hot, not boiling, white wine vinegar. Leave for 24 hours. And strain. You can then add some more blossoms to the strained vinegar if you want to give it away as a present. The KitchenLane blog has an excellent post with some great photographs about making nasturtium vinegar.
Damn fiddly, worse than courgette flowers, but hey ho…. You can stuff these beautiful flowers with guacamole or with cream cheese mixed with garlic and herbs.
You can chop them into mayonnaise if you can bear to take the hatchet to something so beautiful – or serve a flower or two to decorate a plate together with a dollop of mayonnaise and get your guests to do the dirty deed. See sea trout with mayonnaise.
Sally Clarke (30 Ingredients) mixes in chopped nasturtium leaves and watercress into the mayonnaise as well and then makes either cheddar, or tuna, or ham sandwiches.
To a pack of mixed green salad leaves add about eight fresh, torn, nasturtium leaves and toss with a vinaigrette. Sprinkle over three or four chopped seeds (pickled, as above, or simply green). Serve with some flowers strewn over the top.