Years ago, when I was a beginner gardener, I put large pots of nasturtiums by my front door every summer. Due to their cheerful, welcoming look and fresh, nose-tingling aroma, they just seemed the right choice for that spot. At the time, I didn’t know that the word nasturtium comes from the Latin words nasus, meaning nose, and tortus, meaning twist or tweak, but the moniker is certainly apt.
Nor was I aware then that the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet–who understood just a bit about the aesthetics of flowers–grew nasturtiums all along the front path to his home. Note the low-growing line of orange nasturtiums at the feet of the girl in his beautiful 1895, “Garden at Giverny,” below right. (That floral masterpiece is one of my favorites. Wouldn’t it be spectacular on a summer house wall?)
In Monet’s day, nasturtiums were still relatively new on the European garden scene. The conquistadors had brought them, along with chocolate, back to Spain from the New World. Admittedly they didn’t make quite the same splash as chocolate, but King Louis XIV created a demand for them when he included nasturtiums in the flowerbeds at Versailles.
Though I’ve moved several times since my early gardening days, as you can see from the pic at the top, I still keep pots of nasturtiums right by the front door. But their charm is not the only reason; I want them handy for culinary use.
All season long, I judiciously snip tender leaves and flowers and add them to green salads. They taste like very zippy watercress, which would be a good enough reason to use them. (Did you know, that, like watercress, nasturtiums are sometimes classified as herbs?) But their stunning color is their biggest allure, of course.
I also prepare nasturtium-chive vinegar to use in vinaigrettes and in cooking all winter long, as well as to give as holiday gifts to culinary friends. (“Gourmets” who are also dieters are particularly happy with my seasoned vinegar gifts.) Somehow, I never seem make enough though; my supply invariably runs out before nasturtiums are back in season again.
The reddish nasturtiums in the bottle at right are already starting to give the rice vinegar a pink tinge. Over a day or so the flowers gradually fade as their color pigments leach out and turn the mixture an eye-catching orange-red. And their flavor, along with that of the chives, lends the vinegar a full-bodied herbal character that makes it perfect for vinaigrettes. For a nasturtium vinaigrette recipe, go here.
The pic here and below show the nasturtium-chive vinegar during preparation. As you can see, an old fondue fork is an especially handy tool for tucking both nasturtiums and chives into long-necked bottles.
Besides making oil and vinegar dressings with the vinegar, add a little splash to enhance a simple butter sauce for seafood or a pan sauce for sauteed meat. Or use a little to perk up sauteed cabbage or slaw or to add life to store-bought mayo.
Nasturtium-chive vinegar can be kept, unrefrigerated but away from bright light or heat for up to a year. After that the flavors fade, so plan to use up your stash and make more!
Tip: While it’s easiest to just add herbs to the bottles the vinegar comes in, for a more decorative look, try interesting recycled or purchased bottles topped with corks or non-reactive caps. The herbs stay in the bottle until the vinegar gets used up, so the flavor intensifies over time.
For each bottle of vinegar, you’ll need:
6-8 nasturtium leaves, plus 3 or 4 nasturtium blooms if you want the vinegar to turn a colorful shade
1 small handful of fresh chives or garlic chives (include blooms, if desired), optional
About 12- to 16-ounces unseasoned white rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
Cut some fresh, organic nasturtium leaves and blooms and some chives or garlic chives. Discard any brown, yellowed, or bruised leaves. Wash gently but thoroughly under cool water. Pat dry with paper towels. Push the sprigs down into a nearly full bottle of vinegar (a fondue fork is great for this but a long skewer can be used). Keep working until all the leaves and blooms are completely submerged in the vinegar. If the vinegar overflows the top, just pour off the excess; if the bottle is not full, top it off with more vinegar so the herbs are completely submerged. Let the mixture steep at least a few days so the flavor can develop before using.
Makes 1 12- to 16-ounce bottle of nasturtium vinegar.
Perhaps you’d enjoy my nasturtium vinaigrette here.