|Nasturtium blossoms and leaves add beauty and flavor to all kinds of dishes. The seeds and stems are edible, too. Photo by Esther Oertel.|
The sweet-spicy aroma of nasturtiums fresh from the garden gets my juices flowing, and not only because of their pleasant scent.
They smell like dinner time to me.
These peppery relatives of watercress and mustard have been used in culinary applications through the centuries. Nearly every part of the plant is edible – blossoms, leaves, stems and seeds – making them a natural for edible landscapes.
If you’re lucky enough to have these bright beauties in your garden, they should be ripe for the culinary picking from late spring through early summer and beyond.
Native to the Peruvian Andes, nasturtiums were brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.
Less than a century later, they were eaten in France to stave off hunger during tough economic times under King Louis XIV, who grew them in his garden, as did Thomas Jefferson in later years.
After another 100 years or so, Victorian-era Europeans turned to nasturtiums to provide the vitamin C that staves off scurvy, something that was rampant at the time.
Between the early 1800s, when a volunteer plant was first found in upstate New York, till the early 1900s, when wild-growing nasturtiums became established in the western United States, this hardy perennial spread through the North American continent.
They’re the darling of gardeners, as they grow in almost any soil and are self-seeding. Once a nasturtium plot is established, you’ll have an abundant harvest for years to come.
They bloom in colors ranging from buttery cream to deep mahogany, with bright reds, yellows, and oranges most commonly seen. Nasturtium’s bright flower faces grow on vines and can be seen crawling along the ground in thick garden beds or climbing over trellises.
The name nasturtium reflects its distinctive flavor, coming from a Latin phrase meaning “twisted nose,” which refers to the reaction of one’s nasal passages upon eating the peppery plant.
I wouldn’t go that far (my nose has remained well in place upon every ingestion), but some of the plant’s largest lily pad-like leaves can be quite severe in their piquancy, similar to mature mustard greens.
Such flavor is welcome when its leaves are combined with other greens to add spicy flavor to a salad, or used as a peppery green on a sandwich.
Like its relative, watercress, nasturtium greens make wonderful tea sandwiches when layered over cream cheese on hearty bread.
Pesto may be made with the leaves, which should first be quickly blanched in boiling water to neutralize their strong flavor. After blanching, immerse greens in an ice water bath to cool and stop cooking process before making pesto.
Saucy nasturtium greens may be added to potato soup, where mild, starchy potatoes balance their potentially strong flavor.
The blossoms have a somewhat peppery flavor similar to the leaves, though much milder and sweeter, and they have far more to offer than their common use as a graceful garnish.
When stuffed with cream cheese and chives (or other herbs, if you like), they make a wonderful appetizer. Guacamole works well as a filling, too.
The blossoms can be added to salads, floated in drinks, made into vinaigrette, tossed atop pizza, become a star in risotto, and even be featured in spring rolls along with carrots, cucumbers, mint and the like.
Along with other edible flowers, they decorate and flavor traditional Korean sweet pancakes called “hwajeon” as a celebration of spring.
Nasturtium-lemon butter may be made by combining the blossoms with softened butter and a bit of lemon juice and lemon zest.
And lastly, when eating the blossoms out of hand in the garden, be sure to look for a longish spur just under the flower head. These are full of nectar and are a sweet treat when eaten. As kids, my brother and I used to pinch them off near the tip and suck the nectar out.
Nasturtium seeds may be pickled and made into mock capers (true capers are the pungent bud of a Mediterranean bush) for a flavorful addition to a variety of dishes.
The seeds, as well as the blossoms and leaves, may be a component for any number of nasturtium vinegar recipes, where the plant’s flavors are infused into white vinegar.
As to nutrition, nasturtium leaves are full of vitamin C and iron, making them a nutritionally dense food.
Since nasturtiums are said to be useful in breaking up respiratory congestion, nasturtium “tea” (technically, a tisane) might make a powerful part of one’s arsenal against colds. Simply steep fresh nasturtium blossoms and leaves in hot water and sip when flavor is infused.
Another reputed benefit is that nasturtiums encourage the formation of blood cells and are therefore given as a blood purifier and detoxifier.
|Nasturtiums are a flavorful and hardy addition to an edible landscape, as they grow in almost any soil and reseed themselves each year. Their pleasant, peppery taste is a favorite in a variety of culinary applications. Photo by Esther Oertel.|
The brightly-colored blossoms contain anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants scavenge free radicals from the body, making them an effective defense against cancer.
When harvesting nasturtiums, choose leaves and blossoms that appear fresh and show no sign of browning or withering. And remember – the larger the leaf, the more pungent the peppery flavor.
If you don’t have nasturtiums handy for picking, culinary-grade nasturtiums are sold at some farmers’ markets, in specialty stores, and on the Internet. Be sure they’re grown for comestible purposes and haven’t been sprayed.
The same is true for home gardeners; if you plan to use blossoms for food, avoid using pesticides.
Below is my twist on a recipe for stuffed nasturtium blossoms. You can use it as a starting point for your own creative ideas, and the recipe can be adapted for stuffing the mildly-flavored squash blossoms which should appear in your vegetable garden later this summer.
And before I go, did you know nasturtiums played a minor culinary role during the World War II era? Since imported black pepper was difficult to come by during the war years, nasturtium seeds were dried and ground as a substitute for the spice.
If you’re adventurous, you can make your own by drying the seeds and grinding them in a spice grinder or a dedicated coffee grinder.
Considering their piquant palatability, I have no doubt they were a more than adequate replacement!
Stuffed nasturtium blossoms
16 nasturtium flowers
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
½ tablespoon chopped fresh chives (chive blossoms may be used instead)
½ tablespoon chopped herbs (for example, thyme, lemon verbena, lemon basil or any combination)
Zest from about half a lemon (to taste; adjust as you like)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pick flowers as close to serving time as possible. Make sure they’re clean, dry, and pesticide-free. (It wouldn’t hurt to check for bugs, too!) Store flowers in fridge until ready to use.
Thoroughly mix chives, herb(s), lemon zest, salt and pepper into cream cheese. Adjust seasonings as desired. Fill a pastry bag with the mixture.
Handling flowers gently as they bruise easily, fill each flower using pastry bag with 1 to 2 teaspoons of cream cheese mixture. Pull petals upwards to cover the cheese as much as possible and press lightly into cheese.
Refrigerate and served chilled.
Note: A sturdy zipper-sealed bag with a corner clipped off can serve as a makeshift pastry bag.
Esther Oertel, a freelance writer, cooking teacher, and speaker, is passionate about local produce and all foods in the vegetable kingdom. She welcomes your questions and comments and may be reached at email@example.com .