A Cook's Garden
Nasturtiums to Nibble
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page H08
An old friend of mine was recalling the first time he ate a nasturtium garnish.
"It didn't taste bad, but I felt a little weird about putting it in my mouth. It was so big, and orange, and soft. Not like food. As if I were eating the napkin."
I asked him if he felt that way about edible flora in general.
"I guess it depends. Johnny-jump-ups seem okay because they're tiny."
Maybe nasturtiums aren't for everyone, but they have certainly earned their place in the kitchen larder. They look gorgeous on the plate, especially when their bright blooms stand out against a green salad, a bright pea-green soup or a dish of snap beans. These are robust blooms that don't wilt unless you drown them in salad dressing -- they're best added last, as a crowning touch. Once you get used to them, you'll love the way the petals' peppery tang combines with the drop of nectar at the flower's heart.
You can also chop or slice them to add color and flavor to compound butters, spreads, dips and deviled eggs. The flowers can be tucked inside sandwiches or used as tiny cups -- for a dainty hors d'oeuvre, try piping a savory cream cheese or guacamole filling into individual blossoms. My friend Lauren bedecked her wedding cake with nasturtiums atop butter cream frosting.
Long before its flowers became an edible decoration, the plant served as a more substantial food. In South America, its place of origin, nasturtium leaves were consumed as a green, zesty and rich in Vitamin C. It is not surprising that nasturtium acquired a common name that properly belongs to watercress, whose botanical name is Nasturtium officinale. (What we call nasturtiums are various species of Tropaeolum.)
Though unrelated, the leaves of both plants have a pungent flavor and can be used in similar ways -- combined with milder leaf crops in salads or layered with cucumbers and other sandwich fillings that need that extra bite.
Even the seed pods are edible. You pick them while they are still green, let them dry for a day or so and store them in a jar or bottle filled with vinegar. Use them exactly the way you would capers -- as a garnish for smoked salmon or tossed with brown butter to sauce filet of sole.
Versatile as they are, I would grow nasturtiums even if I ate none of their parts. Children enjoy growing them because the large seeds are easily sown, and they come up and bloom quickly. I must have a child's impatience, because I love annuals I can direct-seed and then ignore. These vigorous plants quickly establish themselves and hold their own at the edge of a flower border, or even as a companion crop for broccoli and other vegetables.
One of the oft-repeated maxims about nasturtiums is that they prefer poor soil. There is even a saying that goes: "Be nasty to nasturtiums." I'd call that a slight exaggeration. It is true that a very rich soil, high in nitrogen, can make them go to leaf, with few blossoms. But a soil that is truly impoverished, heavily compacted or badly drained will produce puny plants. Nasturtiums bloom best in full sun but will usually do fine in part shade as well, especially in hot weather, which is not to their liking.
One of the best things about growing nasturtiums is the wide range of types now available, some old-fashioned, some new. I love the wide color range -- everything from pale creamy ones like Moonlight, to vibrant yellow, gold and red, and all the luscious in-between shades like salmon, apricot, cerise and deepest mahogany. Some are bicolored, such as Peach Melba, which is pale peach with red markings at the base of the petals. Empress of India has rich vermilion flowers that contrast with its small, deep blue-green leaves. The Alaska series has green leaves streaked with cream.
Some, like the Jewel series, grow on very long, trailing stems, great for hanging down a wall or an embankment. Or joyously encroaching on a wide path, as they are permitted to do at Monet's celebrated Giverny. Semi-trailers like the Gleam series, with variously colored fragrant, double blooms, look carefree when cascading down from hanging baskets, or creeping out of a pot.
The more compact types include the Whirlybird and Tom Thumb mixtures, great for edging. And many modern nasturtiums, such as Jewel and Tip Top have been bred to hold their heads high above the leaves -- important if your soil isn't quite nasty enough and the foliage is lush.
All types are laid low by the first frost, but try sowing a few in pots for your brightest indoor windowsill. They'll lend cheer to wintry rooms, zest and color to wintry fare.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company