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Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Nasturtium Caper…

nasturtium patchWe had a problem area in the garden, just a little patch around the birdhouse pole that couldn’t be accessed by the tiller and consequently the area required constant weeding. The solution, we found, was to plant the area in nasturtiums. This second season the plants, which throw an abundance of seed, volunteered so profusely the weeds were crowded and shaded out. This summer the nasturtium bed was our garden hotspot, flickering flames of flowers—fiery shades of oranges and reds—as if the birdhouse had a brush fire at its feet. What an amazing return from a couple packets of seed!

The weekend before Christmas each year our extended family congregates at the designated home in the rotation where we consume copious amounts of food and commune with family. Before the party breaks up and we head out the door for our respective homes, my brothers and I exchange the personal gifts we’ve prepared especially for each other.  It’s become a holiday tradition for the brothers and me. The gifts usually come in a canning jar, something from our gardens or backyards. (A word about my family: I am one of six children, four boys and two girls. Of the six, only my brothers and I are canners and food preservers. The sisters for whatever strange reason have neglected the art themselves…don’t ask me why). I’ve been gifted pickled eggs (brothers’ backyard chickens), jams, spicy pickles…last year a jar of smoked salmon (one brother has a cabin on one of the islands). They in return: pickled jalapeno slices, pepper and quince jelly, pickled watermelon rind…and sauerkraut (two brothers have adopted my habit and we now have a “’kraut off” each Christmas from each other’s annual batch). For my birthday a year ago the brothers gave me a book on pickling: The Joy of Pickling (Linda Zierdrich). On the inside cover my brother Kevin wrote: “Enjoy the book. Might come in handy if you decide to venture off the beaten path….” This year I wandered off the beaten path and where did I end up? Well, at the nasturtium patch.sunburst nasturtiums

On one of Cisco Morris’s (“OO la la!”) Saturday broadcasts, the master gardener of local renown brought up the topic of nasturtiums. “Do you know,” Cisco’s chirpy voice announced, “every part of the nasturtium is edible: leaves to spice up your salad. Flowers for colorful presentation?” Cisco continued on. “During WWII the English couldn’t get capers because of the war.” (Apparentlyin those war torn days Italy was the caper capital of the world.) “And so they used nasturtium seed pods instead.”

I’m standing at the end of the beaten path peering into the mass of nasturtium vines. Sure enough there are seed pods galore, usually a cluster of three at the end of the curly-cue flower stems. nasturtium budsI stooped, plucked a trio of plump pods, popped one in my mouth, and crunched it. Instantly a zesty tang exploded on my tongue followed by a peppery aftertaste that set my nostrils a’ tingle. Definitely a unique taste. Most certainly an unusual species of garden produce. And thus the inspiration for this year’s canned goods and my brothers’ Christmas surprise.

On page 155 of  The Joy of Pickling I find a recipe for “Pickled Nasturtium Pods.” Reading through the introduction I come across a quote by Euell Gibbons, the natural foods guru: “Nasturtium buds make better capers than capers do. My family likes them in pasta sauces; they are also good in salads.” If nasturtium pods are good enough for the Gibbons, my brothers should certainly have some.

faux capersI read the recipe which was taken from a 1739 cookbook, The Compleat Housewife, by Eliza Smith. Pickling the buds is a bit time-intensive: first, you have to pick a pint of them (half an hour to forty-five minutes). After the buds are washed, they must be brined for twenty-four hours in salt. The buds are drained and rinsed and rebrined two more times (three sessions total) before they are pickled. On the chance you yourself have tired of the well-worn path and want a new pickling adventure, use the recipe below:

4 1/2 Tbsp pickling salt

3 cups water

4 whole cloves

1 pinch mace

1/4 whole nutmeg

1 slice horseradish (about 1 1/2” in diameter by 3/16” thick) cut into thin strips

1 shallot, peeled

approx. 1 cup white vinegar

1. Dissolve 1 1/2 Tbsp salt in 1 cup water and pour this brine over nasturtium pods. Let stand one day.

2. Drain the pods. Make a fresh brine the same way as before. Drain pods as earlier. Make fresh brine. Let stand a second day.

3. Repeat steps one and two for a third day

4. On the fourth day, drain the pods, put them into a sterile pint jar with the cloves, mace, nutmeg,  horseradish and shallot and cover contents well with the vinegar. Seal jar with a nonreactive cap and let stand at room temperature for one week.

After one week, store the jar in the refrigerator or a cool, dry, dark place. The pickled pods will keep well for a year or more.

Now I’m sure this post might cause the more perspicacious reader to exclaim: “Wait a minute! He’s gone and given away his brothers’ Christmas surprise, hasn’t he!” No need for concern. This secret is as well-preserved as the pickled nasturtium pods. My brothers never read The Ripple. They’ve much better things to do with their time.pickled pods

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