Seasonal Eats: Now is the Time for Nasturtiums!

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Yellow nasturtiums in the garden (Heather Parlato/LAist)

You've seen them growing on hillsides every spring, and maybe sometimes as a garnish or in a salad, but did you know how infinitely edible nasturtiums are? Besides being beautiful in a range of color, nasturtiums are a very garden-friendly plant. If you've planted some this year, you're noticing the blossoms have come to life in recent weeks, so let's get started on putting it to good use.

Nasturtiums are very hardy, thriving in poor soil with little water and lots of sun. They make a great cover for difficult hillsides, so plant it in areas where you can't grow much else and let them go to town. The flowers have 5 petals with a spur of nectar down the back side, are easy to pluck right off the stem, and have a sweet, peppery flavor when eaten fresh (they also impart this flavor quite easily to food). The leaves are round, with a similar peppery flavor to arugala. Nasturtium's role in the garden is one of a bee and lacewing attractor (bees love them, lacewings are a beneficial insect that eats other pests), a repellent for squash bugs and cucumber beetles, and sometimes as a trap crop for aphids and cabbage butterflies (where the gardener hopes to lure these pests to the nasturtium rather than other food crops in the brassica family).

All parts of the nasturtium plant are edible, though the most common parts used are the flowers and the leaves, with some talk of pickling the seeds as an alternative to capers with a peppery kick (which I will totally do as soon as i see seeds forming). I've heard they also grow a tuber, which is used as a food source in the Andes, but since I don't know enough about that to write with authority on it, perhaps some of our South American friends can chime in with suggestions. I don't have nutrition info on nasturtiums, but it's suggested that since they produce an oil similar to watercress, that they have similar properties to the brassica family.

If you haven't tried nasturtiums before, the first thing to do is pick a flower off a safe specimen (from a plant grown without pesticides in clean soil) and eat it. Yes, eat it up! You'll notice a refreshingly floral sweetness with a peppery backbone and a very slight vegetal acidity. Once you're initiated, throw some young leaves and flowers into your next green salad. If you find this novel & fun, move on to a more hearty salad, like this baby greens with roasted beets and potatoes. When cucumbers and tomatoes are around in summer, try this nasturtium leaf salad. Use them as a garnish on your grilled tuna salad with sun-dried tomato dressing. Dress up your fruit salads with a handful of nasturtium flowers, or spice up your next sandwich with a layer of nasturtium leaves and flowers.

Once you've invited them into the kitchen, it's time to get cooking. Serve up a spring taglierini with morels, asparagus and nasturtiums, or make up a spicy nasturtium leaf pesto for your fresh pasta. If you make your own ravioli from scratch, what about mixing chopped nasturtium flowers into the ricotta stuffing for fresh spring flavor? One blogger talks about stuffing nasturtiums with chive cream cheese as an appetizer, while another has worked up a nasturtium and potato soup (among other suggestions in both posts). Finally, create nasturtium butter as a condiment to spread or melt into whatever tickles your fancy.

This isn't the longest list of recipes, so if anyone knows of any more, share them in the comments! I've read about a few people infusing nasturtiums into vodka and rum, but haven't found any recipes to link to, so I might just have to experiment with those.

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Nasturtium flowers infusing into vinegar (Heather Parlato/LAist)

After reading about nasturtium vinegar for awhile, I decided to make up my own infusion, which just includes picking 10-15 nasturtium flowers and steeping in 1.5 cups white wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar and 1/2 cup white wine. I plan to taste it every few days, and when i like the strength of the flavor, i'll pour it into a dispensing bottle with a flower in the bottom and start using it with salads. I chose a jar for the infusion so i wouldn't be wrestling wilted flowers through a narrow bottleneck, but you do what you like.