Flowers and greenery suddenly pop up at this time of year. Where before there was just grey sky and bare twigs there are now leaves, bright green and dripping with fresh spring rain. Flowerbeds too begin to flourish and as the daffodils and cherry blossoms fade away more and more fragile and fleeting petals take their places.
Nasturtiums can be seen everywhere from mid spring, from meadows to town centre roundabouts, and have been eaten for centuries. Like lots of things we consider ‘European’ they were reclaimed from distant lands. Originally bought to Europe from their native Peru by Spanish conquistadors after they observed the Incas using them medicinally, they were highly prized as both vegetable and an exotic flower, making appearances on plates and in royal flowerbeds from the Iberian peninsula to the low lands of Belgium and Holland.
As a food stuff it began to fall out of favour in the early 1800s. Exported back to North America the little, brightly coloured flowers were planted ornamentally across the new nation and were allowed a little peace to grow haphazardly across gardens around the civilised world. Still though, the Nasturtium never fell from fashion among many country cooks and was always known for it’s fresh, spicy flavour not dissimilar from watercress. This becomes even more apparent when we look at the roots (no pun intended) of the words – cresso is old German for spicy and both their latin names; nasturtium come from nasus tortus, or ‘twisted nose’ which you’ll understand if you’ve ever seen someone eat too much horseradish in one go.
The whole plant is edible and the seed pods are remarkably similar to capers. Although capers are actually unopened flower buds the seed pods can be harvested in much the same way and after brining at room temperature for 3 days and then pickling in a lightly sweetened wine vinegar with a few herbs the little pods make a beautifully traditional and British alternative to Italian grown capers. Do bare in mind though that nasturtium seed pods contain quite a lot of oxalic acid, just like gooseberries, rhubarb and sorrel. While this is fine in small amounts eating too much of these can cause kidney stones.
For those without a garden full of edible flowers the leaves and petals are easy to get hold of and make a perfect addition to summer salads. Simply pair the leaves with something creamier like a little gem or a butterhead lettuce and toss with a gentle vinaigrette. This side can be taken a little further with the addition of some young goat’s cheese like Mary Holbrook’s Sleightlett or Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Perroche tossed in too. Try melting the cheese under the grill first or preserving it with herb infused olive oil for something even more profound.
The chemical that makes the leaves so spicy is exactly the same as the spice in watercress, horseradish and wasabi so use those as a springboard for inspiration. Flaked, smoked trout and a few leaves with a squeeze of lemon juice. Steak, just rare and rested for 5 minutes with a caper (or seed pod) butter and nasturtiums tossed in the pan juices. Or try them in an omelette with a few sliced mushrooms or a sprinkling of grated Gruyère and a glass of cold white wine on the side.
Finally try to remember ‘what grows together, goes together’ so toss the leaves or flowers in with whatever spring vegetables you can find for something that works every time. Broad beans and asparagus, peas and courgettes, artichokes and fennel. A few crisp fried lardons, cured ham or warm, crumbled feta would be nice here too. You can push the boat out with the flowers as a garnish, they look good on basically anything. Especially green stuff. Take inspiration from the garden, still glistening from seemingly long passed April Showers. Rabbit, snail and nasturtium paella anyone?