People who live in more temperate areas don’t give nasturtiums a second look. They’re often regarded as weeds, since they reseed easily and will grow absolutely anywhere with the least amount of maintenance. (Ever been in southern California in June?)
But whether you grow nasturtiums in Cambridge or Kodiak, they’re often seen as ornamental annuals, blooming through early summer before the heat (or frost) turns them into a scraggly mess of vines.
Historically, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are considered vegetables, hailing from South America and originally cultivated in Peru. The leaves and flowers contain high amounts of mustard oils, which give them a pungent, peppery flavor that is released when the plant is crushed or chewed. These are the same oils found in mustard seeds, horseradish root and wasabi.
According to several herbal sources, mustard oils have active antiobiotic, antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties, making nasturtiums a natural remedy for everything from skin infections to sinus colds. The leaves are also rich in vitamin C and iron, and the anthocyanins in the red and orange flowers make them highly antioxidant.
So I’m talking food here. Nasturtiums aren’t just for show. Longtime readers of this column might recall my recipe for Poor Man’s Capers, made with green nasturtium seedpods.
Capers are just the tip of the iceberg. You can make a simple and beautiful salad with the leaves and flowers, and gain the many health benefits of this underrated plant.
If you end up with a bumper crop of nasturtiums, a favorite use for them is making pesto. The mustard oils in the plant add a spicy kick to this recipe not found in typical, basil-based pesto. It’s a great way to treat an ordinary ingredient in a whole new way.
This recipe is the creation of local chef Joel Chenet, of Mill Bay Coffee and Pastries.
Into a food processor or blender, put the following ingredients:
4 cups packed nasturtium leaves
3 to 5 cloves of garlic
1 1/2 cups olive oil
2 drops Tabasco sauce
1 cup walnuts
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Process the mixture until smooth. To store the pesto, Joel suggests freezing it in ice cube trays so it's ready whenever you need it. “The pesto is excellent on top of grilled salmon, halibut, chicken or steak. Just set a pesto ice cube onto each serving and voila, instant gourmet.”
Another way to enjoy nasturtiums is to serve them as mini ice cream cones. The trumpet-like flowers are the perfect complement to your favorite cake and ice cream (or whipped cream) flavor. Here’s what you do: Pick up a nasturtium flower and hold it in your fingers, open end up, like a funnel. Now take a small piece of cake and a smidgeon of ice cream and pack the flower with it. Now pop the whole thing in your mouth. We discovered years ago that nasturtium ice cream cones make for added entertainment with our dinner cruise guests.
Just a note while I’m thinking about it. While nasturtiums are easy to love (because they're easy to grow), if you overdo the nitrogen fertilizer, you’ll end up with giant leaves and no flowers.
So one more tip about recipes using nasturtium flowers: They hold their color best in recipes that don’t require heat. Here’s a recipe I discovered while researching flower butter. The recipe is actually the creation of a blogger who refers to herself as someone who "loves heirloom vegetables" and "taking subpar photos" with her phone.
Nasturtium Herb Butter
1/3 cup chopped nasturtiums, mixed colors if available
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 clove fresh garlic, crushed and minced
1 tablespoon green onion or chives, minced
1 teaspoon fresh parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
Fold all ingredients together (I use my hands-plus-gloves) and chill, covered for at least an hour. Overnight would be best. Serve on warm bread, savory muffins or on cooked vegetables.
Garden to do list
Check your garlic: I harvested our “Siberian” garlic last weekend. Not all varieties become harvestable at the same time, and browning leaves are not always the best indicator.
Sow another crop of salad greens, broccoli and cabbage crops.
Keep root crops watered.
Bend (bulbing) onion tops over to encourage bulbs to swell
Take advantage of garden and plant sales around town. Now is the best time to stock up on supplies for next season.
Marion Owen’s garden is open for tours from 9am to noon on most days. Call 907-539-5009 or find her on Facebook for more information. To connect with local gardeners, visit the Kodiak Growers or the Sustainable Kodiak Facebook page. Archived copies of Marion’s columns are posted at www.kodiakdailymirror.com.