Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nasturtiums - Herb of the Week

Wednesday is sometimes referred to as hump day. This always seemed a bad label for Wednesday, so to rejuvenate the hump day idea, I thought it might be nice to give something detailed and interesting to get you thinking creatively, sowhen as you coast down the hump into the weekend you have either a new herb to put on your list or something new to do with an herb you already know.

So I christen Wednesday and Herb-of-the-Week day. Every Wednesday I will feature a blog on a special herb and detail it uses, growing habit and include recipes.

This week’s herb is: NASTURTIUMS

If you are looking for a plant for your garden that will spread like wildfire, produce decorative foliage, have an ocean of brightly-colored blossoms, and be tasty to boot, there is only one that will fit the bill: Nasturtiums.

I remember growing them from seed in my first herb garden. The fun colorful bush was a great focal point, drawing the eye all the way to back of my garden making it look larger than it was. The name for them is also fun. It is a combination of the Latin nasus for “nose” and tortus for “twisted,” describing the way our nose twists and wrinkles when we inhale their spicy scent.

Nasturtiums effortlessly fill a garden space with mounds of fun foliage even before their colorful blooms appear. The leaves are rounded with wavy edges, with a single stem that comes out of the back. Depending on species the leaves vary from gray-green to bright green, blue green to variegated. The veining created a star like pattern. The flowers are spurred; trumpet-shaped flowers available in a palette of bright colors.

It was the Spanish conquistadores who brought nasturtiums from their native South America to Europe more than 500 years ago. There are two cultivars. Common garden varieties are small and bushy and perfect in beds and pots growing only 8 to 20 inches in height. However the traditional vine style needs a trellis or supporting fence to grow. I like to plant them in pots or bed areas where the sprawling stems can fall over the edges and make a graceful natural pattern.

To grow these colorful plants, you can easily start them from seed. In fact the seeds are so large they often make a great project for kids to garden with. All they require is average soil and full sun. In zone 7 you can put them in the ground in late March or early April. In Zone 5 where I live, I wait until May (unless the April was unseasonably warm). For a good mass of color plant the seeds 12 inches apart. Once the plants are up, keep them watered, but don’t feed them too much nitrogen or you will get lots of leaves but few blooms.

You can harvest the edible leaves regularly to keep the plant bushy and slightly tame. Remove the stems and rinse the leaves. You can use them like lettuce. Actually because of their peppery flavor I use them with lettuce or a mixed green salad. They go well with endive and dandelion. To harvest the flowers, which are also edible, pick those with long stems and keep them in a glass of water until you are ready to prepare them. When you are ready, rinse the blooms gently, shape and pat them dry and remove the stems. Use the whole blossom or separate them into petals. They can be added to salads or used to create a vinegar you can then use as a dressing. I make mine with 1/4 cup vinegar to 2/3 cup canola oil. (Vinegar recipe is below.)

Both the foliage and the flowers add a pleasant hint of heat and pungency to many summer dishes. The leaves are high in vitamin C and cam be used any place you might like water cress including salads, sandwiches and green sauces. Although the blossoms appear delicate, they are actually very durable and make vibrant and long-lasting garnishes, one of their best uses. Use the blossoms either whole or chopped to decorate creamy soups, salads, butters, cakes and platters. When shredded they make a flavorful accent for pasta, rice, couscous or chicken salad. You can even chop and sprinkle them on pizza. Add chopped clean nasturtium flower petals to your favorite tuna, egg or chicken salad to craft a sandwich filling. Blend nasturtium petals with cream cheese or butter and spread on thin slices of dark bread for savory snacks or appetizers. (Cream Cheese recipe below.)

The blossoms have the same peppery quality as the leaves, but milder, with a hint of floral. The blossoms make great holders for cold salads, and cheese blends. Because they have no internal structure when filled I sometime lay them on bread or crackers or toasts to make them easier to pick up. The flowers also make colorful vinegar. You can make Nasturtium-only vinegar (see instrcutions below) or add it as a compliment to basil, chive, garlic or lemon herb vinegars.  The seeds can be harvested and used too. Pickled they make a suitable substitute for capers.


Nasturtium Vinegar

  • About 1 to 1 ½ cups of loosely packed nasturtium flowers
  • 1 pint white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

Harvest the flowers on a sunny morning, rinse them as necessary and pat them dry. Bruise them slightly to release the flavor. Fill a clean jar ¾ full with flowers and cover them with vinegar. Use plastic rather than metal lid to seal the jar to keep it from reacting. Place the jar in a cool dark place. It can be used as soon as 12 hours but the longer you wait the deeper the flavor. However they will break down and stop creating a fresh bright flavor, so you want to decant the vinegar before this. You should begin tasting the vinegar after about 10 days.

When it reaches its best flavor, strain out the flowers to achieve crystal clear vinegar, you will need coffee filters for this. Store in a cool dark place and use within a year.

Nasturtium Cheese Blend

  • 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
  • 1/4 cup chopped nasturtium flowers
  • 1/4 cup prepared horseradish
  • Crackers or snack rye bread

In a bowl, beat the cream cheese, nasturtium flowers and horseradish until well blended. Serve with crackers or bread. Yield: 1-1/2 cups.

This Herb of the Week blog will repeat every Wednesday, so stop back to learn about more herbs.  And for additional herb information and recipes, visit my website

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