More than just a sprawling garden staple
Story, recipes, and photos by Kristen Rasmussen de Vasquez
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) grows everywhere—everywhere—in the Bay Area, as well as in many other parts of the world. Thriving almost year-round, it dies off only in very cold or very hot and dry conditions. Sprawling and iconic, nasturtium flourishes in parks and gardens, where it easily naturalizes, lending its vibrant colors to untended areas and attracting wild food enthusiasts like myself. I find that even entrenched wild food skeptics may be won over by this plant’s radish-like taste, as long as said skeptics don’t harbor an aversion to pungency akin to mustard.
Nasturtium flowers can be bright orange, yellow, or red, with five petals connected to a single stem. The large round green leaves resemble thin, soft lily pads. Originating in Peru, the plant likely won a ride north by virtue of its visual appeal, easy propagation, and unique flavor.
Even if you think you might not recognize nasturtium in the garden, you have probably seen or tasted the flowers in a farmers’ market salad mix. I first took note of nasturtium in a culinary application when I worked in a restaurant that used the flowers to garnish Mediterranean mezze platters. They tasted slightly tart, but with a nip of sweet nectar at the blossom tips, and I would often grab the leftover stems to chew on for a peppery jolt that would keep me revved-up throughout dinner service. Since that time, I have explored ways the plant can serve as more than a colorful orange garnish. The luscious, spicy leaves and nose-clearing seedpods are novel yet underappreciated ingredients, prevalent and worth embracing.
If you are not growing nasturtiums in your own garden, you may find plenty around your neighborhood. You’ll want to ask for permission before harvesting and also make sure no pesticides or herbicides have been used on or around the plants. Always wash the plants well, especially when you are less familiar with the agricultural methods used in the area where they are growing.
Like the flowers, nasturtium leaves are pretty simple to use in the kitchen. Just pick, wash, and eat them. I toss the leaves into salad (chopped or whole, depending on the salad and size of leaf), or blend them with other ingredients for a sauce similar to chimichurri or pesto (see below). They can also be cooked, but use a light hand with the heat on these tender leaves. When picking the leaves, you might include some of the stem for extra pungency, but note that the stems can be fibrous on larger leaves.
The nasturtium plant goes to seed each fall after flowering. Shaped like tiny brains, the seedpods develop on the ends of stems in clusters of three as the plant matures. You’ll want to harvest the pods when they are young and light green rather than yellow, since they lose flavor and dramatically toughen as they mature. For an intense snack, try the seeds raw: Their wasabi-like flavor will quickly wake you up. If you’re interested in preserving that culinary enjoyment, pickle the nasturtium seeds and appreciate these pungent pearls for up to a year. I have found this to be their best application. The pickled seeds, or “California capers,” can be used in most recipes that call for traditional capers. Try them on bagels and lox; in fish, chicken, and pasta dishes; or on egg or green salads for a salty, spicy kick of flavor.
Use as a sauce over roasted vegetables, grilled meat, soups, or bruschetta. To make a pesto-like sauce, omit vinegar and incorporate pine nuts or other nuts and/or cheese.
1 cup chopped nasturtium leaves and stems (Increase the stem-to-leaf ratio if you prefer a more pungent sauce.)
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
Juice of 1 lemon or 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
Blend all ingredients with an immersion blender or in a food processor. Serve immediately, or store in refrigerator for up to one week.
If you find the “capers” too pungent, submerge them in a brine of 1 part salt to 8 parts water for a few days to mellow out the flavor.
Makes 2 half pints
11/3 cups young nasturtium seedpods
2 bay leaves
About 11/3 cups distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons Kosher or sea salt
2 half-pint canning jars with lids, sterilized
Separate any seedpods that are still stuck together. (They are often joined in groups of three.) Soak seedpods in water to remove any dirt or debris, then drain and place in the sterilized half-pint jars along with 1 bay leaf per jar.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the vinegar and salt to a simmer and stir until salt is dissolved. Pour hot vinegar mixture over seedpods, covering them completely.
Let the jars cool to room temperature before capping and refrigerating. The capers are best if you let them sit in the fridge for at least 24 hours before eating, and they will keep there for up to a year. (Note: To can and make stable outside of refrigeration, please follow reputable instructions for that process.)
Kristen Rasmussen de Vasquez is a creator and educator of deliciousness who teaches at UC Berkeley and consults with the Culinary Institute of America on topics ranging from culinary nutrition and food science to foraging. Find her at rootedfood.com.