It’s no wonder nasturtiums were a favorite subject of Monet and other Impressionist painters: Their saucer-like leaves look like tiny lily pads pushing away from the earth, their tissue-thin blossoms fiery sunset colors. Today, the intense peppery flavor of the leaves and flowers, akin to watercress, is a favorite among restaurant chefs, who no doubt also appreciate their photogenic quality.
At home, substitute the leaves for watercress or arugula, or use the flowers in place of squash blossoms. You can make a pesto with nasturtium leaves instead of basil. Use the flowers to fill omelettes or quesadillas. Minced nasturtiums mixed with butter or mayo are great to melt over grilled fish. Young, smaller plants have a mellower flavor.
To make colorful, spicy nasturtium Tequila, put 2 cups nasturtium flowers in a quart jar and add white Tequila to cover, let steep two weeks, then strain into bottles.
Fun Facts About Nasturtiums
- Nasturtiums are in the genus Tropaeolum but named for their resemblance to watercress, whose genus is Nasturtium.
- Orange nasturtiums appear to “flash” at dusk, an optical illusion known as the Linnaeus phenomenon.
- Nasturtiums are the highest plant source of lutein, a carotenoid phytonutrient believed to be good for the eyes.
- Seed pods from nasturtiums can be picked and pickled, similar to capers.
- Nasturtiums are native to Peru. They were brought to Europe in the 16th century, where they were called “Indian cress.”
“Nasturtium has a bright peppery quality, which I love,” says Alicia Ajolo, wine director of Mar’sel at L.A.’s Terranea resort, which serves a pasta made with nasturtiums from its own herb gardens. “This leads me to pair it with the lively citrus notes of a young Arneis to accentuate that brightness. Or, I go the opposite direction with a full-bodied, aged [wine], to accent the earthy tones found in its petals and stems.” At the restaurant, Ajolo pairs the nasturtium pasta with Cantina Produttori Cormòns 2010 Ribolla Gialla Collio.