21 Aug 2014

Edible Garden: Nasturtium capers



As we're bang in the middle of the preserving season, jars and bottles are easily bought (if you haven't been carefully storing recycled jars all year), so it's apt timing to think of how summer flavours can be saved for the winter months. Leaving aside the hedgerow harvests for a moment (elderberries, blackberries, bullaces /sloes and rose hips seen on a recent walk), I've been tackling garden produce.

Nasturtium flowers (Tropaeolum) are still growing yet this is the time that lots of fruit (aka seedpods) are dropping into the soil ready to sprout into new plants next year. There's only so many nasturtium seedlings that a garden needs so I've been picking off a few pods before they can fall, destined for the kitchen to be transformed into Tropa-capers (rather than proper capers).

True capers are the flower buds of the caper shrub (Capparis spinosa) and, once pickled, are a popular ingredient in Italian cooking, especially in pizzas, salads and pasta sauces.  Here in the UK, capers are traditionally used to make Tartare Sauce, among other things, which is commonly eaten as a garnish for fish and is particularly nice with salmon. (Although watercress sauce is even better.  But I digress.) Capers are relatively expensive to buy but I read that nasturtium seedpods develop a very similar taste and texture to capers when pickled.

And so I embarked on nasturtium experiment number two. This time my inspiration was drawn from Alex Mitchell's book 'The Rurbanite'  - and I have to mention that I'm listed in the book as Alex came over when writing it, had a chat over a cup of tea and a look round the veg patch. As this was several years ago, I'm inordinately proud of being credited in the back pages as 'Veg Grower'. 

'Empress of India' seedpod from a lovely deep crimson flower.

Anyway … capers. With the help of a friend and some small curious boys, I gathered 200g of seedpods and soaked them overnight (24 hrs) in a light salt solution; this gets rid of bugs and bacteria. A teaspoon of salt to 200ml of tap water will do it. Pick only the green seedpods (or, from a red flowered plant, they may have red markings as in the above photo). The older, yellower seedpods tend to be dry and past their best.

Having soaked and drained them, I divided them into 2 sterilised jars and topped this up with cold white wine vinegar to cover them.  At this stage, you can decide whether to add herbs or not. I chose to add bay leaves round the edge (decorative and flavoursome) and a swirl of fennel and a couple of lemon verbena leaves on the top as that's what I had to hand. Tarragon leaves are also recommended. How easy is that?

Naturally, I had to go and get some more for the blog photo! ;) 


Now I just have to leave them for a couple of weeks to let the flavours develop and then I have a whole year to use the jar up. If I'm honest, the last time I bought a jar of capers, they sat at the back of the cupboard until their use by date when I kicked myself for wasting money while throwing them in the bin.  I'd needed them for a recipe which I then couldn't find again. If the same happens again, this time it will only have cost me the vinegar - a small comfort.

By the way, if you don't like the taste of vinegar, the smaller fresh seedpods can be washed and added direct to salads, pasta or pizza.  They have a peppery taste and crunchy texture.  But don't try and store them as they'll quickly go soft and, left in water, will start to smell in a most off-putting way.

As a complete procrastination from doing other rather dull things this morning, I've used the top photo to create a jar label, thinking to pretty the jar up for a gift. (I have a neighbour who says she adores eating capers; I want to see what she thinks of these.) I tried tying with a ribbon but prefer the rustic look of a length of Nutscene garden twine. This is the result.



Help yourself to the label if you want, it's here as a printable pdf. (Please let me know if this doesn't work!)

16 Aug 2014

Edible Gardens: Nasturtiums

It's not so much that I love to grow nasturtiums (I do) but that they love to grow for me. Every year, around this time, they seem to take over their corner of the garden, stretching multiple stems out to sprawl among the veg, growing through netting and up poles (with help). By now the stems can be over four feet long and covered with flowers and then fat 3-part seedpods. These seedpods are so numerous that it's impossible to prevent them sinking quietly into the soil where they decompose to provide next year's flood tide of nasturtiums. It's a self-perpetuating cycle. I seem to have inadvertently ended up with quite a few prolific self-seeders in the garden (orach, fennel, linaria, aquilegia) and nasturtiums rank highly among these.



Luckily, nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) is a bit of a wonder plant - I've been discovering that it's not just a pretty face but really earns its keep in the edible garden. Because of its antibacterial, antiseptic and antibiotic qualities, it has many medicinal uses; an infusion of the leaves can help treat respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis, flu and colds (probably best taken with honey). Additionally, because it's antiseptic, a poultice of the leaves can be applied to wounds; admittedly unlikely to be useful to urban or suburban dwellers but, well, you never know.

Back in the kitchen, I already knew that the young lilypad-like leaves can add a peppery bite to salads or be used when making pesto. The flowers, being edible, can make a tasty addition to salads, a summer fruit bowl or jug of party drinks. Or get creative and top a pizza with them for a girlie teenage sleepover party? I can't guarantee the reaction but it just might be cool enough to be acceptable.

Florally speaking, I've found that newly-opened flowers, freshly picked, will last for up to a week in a glass (or vase!) of water - make a sweet country garden arrangement by adding  herbs such as fennel, lovage or mint which also last well in water.  It helps that in the garden they're a bee magnet and I grow nasturtiums in every shade from deep red through orange to cream.  My favourites are a glamorous showstopper called 'Black Velvet' and its alter-ego 'Milkmaid'.  But it was to the orange ones that I turned when I decided to make nasturtium vinegar last month. I'm quite partial to honey and mustard dressing or, let's face it, a big dollop of mayonnaise (yes, from a jar). But, flicking through Pam-the-Jam's preserve book for the River Cottage series, I couldn't resist the lure of discovering another use for all the nasturtiums in the garden - flavoured vinegar.


Packed and ready to go ...

The method is simple enough: a wide-necked jar packed full of flowers, a small palmful of seed pods, a few peppercorns, some salt and a couple of chopped shallots. Cover with white wine vinegar (obviously, use a good one), seal and leave on a sunny windowsill for about a month, giving it a little shake every so often.

Patiently admire its translucent beauty for 30 days ...

… then strain into a clean jar and add fresh flowers.


I started a jar off in July and my vinegar project is now complete, with the now-pink vinegar strained into a clean jar with a few extra flowers added.  The taste is subtle but pleasing.  The original recipe suggests using it in a dressing made with 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 100ml nasturtium vinegar and 200ml olive oil. Mmmm, yum - a delicious way to bring a fresh tang to your salads.

Thinking ahead:  I'm a big fan of presents with a bit of thought and effort behind them. In a beautiful bottle or jar, with a ribbon and hand-written label, I think a bottle of nasturtium vinegar would make a simple and unusual present for a keen cook.  Nasturtiums will start to slow down by the end of this month - although they won't keel over until the first frosts - so this is a project that's best started now. It's also a great project to do with children, especially if they're the ones growing the nasturtiums next year.

In the photo below, you'll see a couple of jars of 'capers' from nasturtium seed pods. Right now is an excellent time to be gathering these - and a useful way of reducing the tide of seedlings next year.  More about these in the next post.

Herbed nasturtium capers, nasturtium vinegar and a pretty vase for the kitchen windowsill.
(The physalis in the front were just picked from my Cape Gooseberry plant and are my treat to myself!)

31 Jul 2014

Busting a Glut ...

I'm seeing a lot of courgette gluts being mentioned on gardening blogs at the moment. Trust me, I've been there but this year have neatly side-stepped that trap by having slugs eat my spare courgette plant and only having one to harvest.  I'm not counting my Ikea courgette growing experiment, more of which in another post. (Which means I'm posting backwards, I think.)


When faced with a daily deluge of courgettes, it's easy to begin to feel slightly overwhelmed at the challenge of appreciating all this bounty. I have a number of recipe books in my kitchen to turn to as well as coming across some nice glut-busting ideas on the internet and in magazines.  I thought a round up might be in order.

In  my own kitchen I turn to Dr Hessayon's Garden to Kitchen Expert, Sarah Raven books, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Veg Every Day and Nigel Slater's Tender Vol One (the veg one). Last night, I cooked the ratatouille (minus the aubergine but with lots of courgettes- fruit, baby leaves and stems) from Kitchen Garden Experts, teamed it with a Mary Berry beef mince sauce and sandwiched it all together with lasagne sheets. Delicious.

On the internet, I thought the following all sounded worth a shot:

From Faith Wallinger writing for The Atlantic:
  • Chop the male and female flowers and sauté in olive oil with finely chopped garlic for a pasta sauce or risotto flavouring. 
  • A Sicilian dish: Stew the tender young leaves with garlic, courgette chunks and courgette flowers. (I'm thinking some tomatoes would be nice with this.)
  • Courgette carpaccio recipe here.  (Thinly sliced raw, drizzled with olive oil, topped with parmesan.)
  • Stuff the flowers with ricotta, layer into a non-stick pan, drizzle with olive oil, cover with a lid and steam/fry over a medium heat for 5 minutes. The steam from the ricotta will cook the flowers. Season and serve.

From Veg Box: Lemon Butter Courgettes.  Plot to plate in less than 15 minutes. Butter, lemon, olive oil, courgette. Simples.

From the BBC Good Food website:
A courgette and caraway cake with apple flavoured cream cheese frosting and caramelised oat topping. Now, be honest, if you saw this on a stand in a café, you'd want a slice wouldn't you? I know I would! This cake is from chef Valentine Warner; It looks, and probably is, delicious. I make a fantastic pork and barley stew by this same chef; on that criteria, I'd say he knows how to make really tasty stuff.

Courgette and caraway cake. Image courtesy of BBC Good Food website.
Roasted vegetables (including courgettes or whatever else you may have lurking) from that queen of the kitchen, Mary Berry. Actually, this is a great end of week meal to throw over couscous or rice and to use up all the veg in the fridge before a Saturday shop.

Sweet stuffed courgette flowers.  Initially this looks like a right faff but, oh my goodness, I bet these are beyond yummy! A recipe by John Torode (the grumpy one from Masterchef), wherein he stuffs courgette flowers with a crème pâtissière, coats with a light batter, fries them, then rolls them in cinnamon sugar. A bit like 'healthy' custard doughnuts, eh?  Recipe also includes a boozy raspberry syrup - I'm not sure these fritters would last that long in my kitchen.

Sauté potato and courgette.  Quick and a delicious side, or a meal in itself with an egg on top, but note this recipe serves only one. Personally, and I don't know what this says about me, I could easily eat three times this. You'll need potato, courgette, garlic, oil, a few herbs, seasoning … and a fork. This is my kind of food.

Citrus and courgette ribbon salad.  Garden ingredients are salad onions, courgettes, parsley plus lemon, walnuts and olive oil. Add a glass of chilled Prosecco, some warm evening sunshine, a table in the garden and who needs to go on holiday?

Courgette pancakes with spiced greek yogurt.  Goodness, is there no end to the versatility of this vegetable! This is lovely finger food - roll them up and dip away! I guess any children might have to get over not finding chocolate and banana in their pancakes but would soon get over it if a variety of dips and toppings were on offer.

There's heaps more to inspire on the BBC website.

And if the blighters do start to get the better of you, there's always Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Glutney, a fantastic way to preserve and eke out those delicious summer flavours.  That link also has Slow-cooked courgettes on toast and a courgette moussaka. Unsurprisingly, my thoughts are veering towards snacking on courgettes and toast for lunch tomorrow.

There, that should keep us all going. Actually, I'm beginning to wish I'd grown a couple more plants… I could do with a glut after reading all those recipes.


Edited to add:  Sue at Green Lane Allotments has a page of delicious courgette recipes that can be found on her blog here

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