Wednesday 10 October 2012

The great nasturtium caper

No matter how pressed for space I am, I'll always find room to plant a few nasturtiums. I think of them as a superplant, both ornamental and useful in a variety of ways. They will grow happily without much in the way of attention - they don't need fussing over. The flowers are prolific and beautiful, cheering up odd corners, patio pots, and the backs of the borders with vibrant orange, yellow, pink or red flowers throughout summer and into autumn. Their scrambling, tumbling habit means that they make good ground cover and keep the weeds down, and they'll also climb over posts, low walls and up trellises, softening the view of harsh backdrops. (Admittedly, they attract blackfly like a magnet, but we can't have everything.)

They are ridiculously easy to grow. Each year, around April (or May, at a stretch) I push a few seeds into the soil where I want them to grow and water them in. After that, I treat them with benign neglect and they seem to like it.

Nasturtiums are great in the kitchen too. Shredded, the leaves make a succulent, pungent addition to a salad. Or you can mash up some herby cheese and roll it up in a nasturtium leaf like a cigarette. The flowers are also edible, lending a delicate peppery taste and soft texture to a salad, or scattered around a whole fish in a centrepiece, or just as a beautiful garnish to a vegetable platter.

When the flowers finally fade, around now, they leave behind little green seedpods. Brush your fingers through a tangle of nasturtium plants and you'll see them drop to the ground, the size of peas and a pale jade green.

The seed pods look like little pale peas
These seedpods too are edible, if pickled in vinegar, and have long been called 'poor man's capers'. They mellow with keeping, with a nutty taste and firm not-quite-crunchy texture. Good enough for everyone, I'd say.

Nasturtium capers
Nasturtium seed pods, still green, to fill a measuring jug to the 200ml mark.
200ml white wine vinegar
A pinch fennel seeds
A pinch peppercorns
2 bay leaves
(The vinegar and salt gives you a basic pickling liquor; the exact nature and amount of aromatics can be played around with.)

Wash and pick over the seed pods, removing any dirt, chaff, blackfly, whatever. Give them a good final rinse and dry on kitchen paper.

Sterilise a jar that will fit the nasturtiums snugly – a complete dishwasher cycle should do the trick, or wash in very hot soapy water, then dry by placing the jar upside down on a rack in an oven heated to 120 degrees.
Rinsing the seedpods prior to packing in a sterilised jar.
Put the bay leaves in the bottom of the jar and fill up with the seed pods. Bring the vinegar, fennel seeds, peppercorns and salt to the boil. I do this in a jug in the microwave – the vinegar smell is less pervasive. Then pour the liquid and aromatics over the seed pods in the jar. Seal and let the jar cool before storing in the fridge. They’ll keep for a good six months if kept chilled.

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