I’m pleased to tell you I just ate this nasturtium salad for lunch. (It was dressed with a homemade nasturtium vinaigrette.) Yes, it was almost, but not quite, too pretty to eat. And, no, it didn’t fill me up! But it was enormously gratifying in other ways.
I’d been carefully tending and hungrily eyeing the huge pot of nasturtiums by my front steps for some time. But because they seemed a supremely inviting entryway accent, I’ve been putting off harvesting quite a while. (I’ve read that Monet also felt nasturtiums were especially welcoming; he planted them abundantly along the path to his front door.)
Today, I finally took the scissors to my crop, and other than being a little sorry about the heavily pruned (make that shaved) look of the plants, I am glad I did. Eating nasturtium leaves and blooms strewn over a pristinely fresh mesclun is a treat I generally enjoy only at a favorite restaurant and at each summer’s end when I finally decide to turn some of my handsomest suburban yard décor into food.
Besides being delectable, these floral “greens” seems indulgent, whimsical, and oh-so-gourmet. The flavor of both the leaves and blooms is bright, lively, and herbal (yes, nasturtiums are classified as herbs as well as flowers), with delightful hits reminiscent of watercress, radish, and mustard. Note that although nasturtiums taste quite a bit like watercress and both are good sources of vitamins C and A, the two aren’t related.
The aroma of nasturtiums is also noticeably, pleasantly pungent, which etymologists say explains their name: Nasus means nose and tortus means twist or tweak in Latin. The nose-tingling smell was tempting me all during the photo shoot. Immediately after checking to be sure some of the images captured were usable, I sat right down and polished off the plate shown, then fixed myself another (much larger) serving!
But, of course, the novelty and the asthetics are also a great part of the appeal. Lately I’ve been happily creating a number of "au naturel" cookies, frostings, and garnishes for my Simply Sensational Cookies book that feature fresh edible flowers, fruits and herb blooms and leaves, and I have absolutely loved the natural flavor, color, and charm they can lend. Turning out a nasturtium vinaigrette and salad seems just a savory extension of the exploration already underway.
Tossing nasturtiums and other flowers into salads is “in” right now, but it’s not a new idea, as this recipe translated from an 1864 Turkish cookbook, Turabi Ejendi, reveals: “Put a plate of flowers of the Nasturtium in a salad bowl, with a tablespoonful of chopped chervil; sprinkle over with your fingers half a teaspoonful of salt, two or three tablespoonsful of olive oil, and the juice of a lemon; turn the salad in the bowl with a spoon and a fork until well mixed, and serve." It sounds quite good—and not unlike the salad served up in this post except that the vinaigrette is mixed right in instead of readied separately. That said, modern experts recommend using nasturtiums as accents and garnishes rather than the base of a salad; a whole bowl of them can be too zippy and hard to digest.
While nasturtiums are now widely popular as ornamentals and edibles in European and North American gardens, they are native to South America and were likely introduced to the rest of the world by the conquistadors. They are tender and shrivel at the first nip in the fall air, so I make sure to shear off all the last leaves and blooms even before I start harvesting the last basil in the garden. Supposedly the unripe nasturtium buds and seeds can be preserved in vinegar and used as a substitute for capers, but I’ve never tried it.
The fresh, bright hues of the nasturtium blooms and chives will gradually fade over several hours, so this lightly-flavored vinaigrette will be most colorful if served shortly after being made. However, it will keep well for 4 or 5 days in the refrigerator. In this case, bring it to room temperature (so the olive oil can become fluid again) before serving.
Use the dressing over mesclun or any other greens you like. Add a few cherry tomatoes or some diced cucumber to your salad, if desired. You can even turn it into a main dish but tucking a hard boiled egg or two along the side.
Tip: Be sure to use an unseasoned (no salt, sugar or herbs added) rice vinegar. I especially like the Nakano brand; it's zesty yet smooth and balances the olive oil nicely.
Tip: It's fine to use mostly leaves in the vinaigrette if you have only a few blooms and need to reserve them for the salad. The dressing just won’t be quite as colorful.
1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar (or use the nasturtium vinegar here)
1/4 cup chopped nasturtium tender leaves (no stems) and blooms
1 to 2 tablespoons snipped or chopped fresh chives
2 to 2 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar, to taste
1 teaspoon prepared mustard, preferably Dijon
1/4 teaspoon each sea salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or a little more to taste
In a deep, medium, non-reactive bowl, whisk together the rice vinegar, nasturtiums, chives, sugar, mustard, salt and pepper. Continue whisking until the salt is completely dissolved. Gradually whisk in the oil until all is incorporated; use 7 tablespoons for a slightly milder dressing. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired. Let the vinaigrette stand a few minutes at room temperature before serving to allow the flavors to mingle. Whisk, stir vigorously, or put in a cruet or jar and shake well to blend before adding to whatever greens, vegetables, and accenting nasturtiums you desire. Add the dressing, toss, and serve immediately or serve individual salad plates and allow diners to drizzle on dressing to taste. Makes 2/3 cup vinaigrette.
You may also want to check out my nasturtium vinegar recipe.