Chow Town

Not just pretty, edible flowers pack nutritional punch

Updated: 2013-09-03T01:04:57Z

By DONNA COOK

Do you ever wonder why chefs put nasturtium flowers in your salads?

My mom used to put them in salads and cook them in greens — lambs quarter and squares root —as she called them when we were growing up.

Little did I know at the time the nutrition value of the nasturtium? I thought it was only for looks in a salad.

In the cooked greens, I just thought my mom hadn’t picked enough and needed more for all of us kids to eat.

Nasturtium originated from northwestern South America. This annual plant includes more than 100 varieties.

In the 16th Century, the plant was introduced to Europe where it became known as Indian cress. It’s thought this was because of the confusion, at that time, between the Indies and India, and also because the flavor of the nasturtium leaves is similar to cress.

In the 1800s, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the genus Tropaeolaceae, which included nasturtium, after the Latin work tropaeolum, meaning trophy. Linnaeus compared the funnel shape of nasturtium’s flowers to battle helmets and its flat leaves to shields, which were traditionally hung on trees after an army was victorious.

Nasturtium plants were not valued as food until they were taken to the orient where the petals and buds were eaten and used to make tea.

Nasturtium flowers and buds have a slight spicy flavor with a mustard-like aroma. They can be added to salads, but are best added after the vinaigrette so as to preserve their shape. The buds or seeds can be pickled and used as an alternative to capers.

The leaves and petals of nasturtium are extremely nutritious as they contain vitamin C and iron. The leaves also have antibiotic properties which are at their most effective just before the plant flowers.

In traditional medicine, an ointment is made from nasturtium flowers and used to treat skin conditions as well as hair loss. The group of phenols in the pigments of orange and red flowers helps naturalize the damaging effects of free radicals, thereby helping to protect us from chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Here’s an easy recipe to try:

Nasturtium Pesto

2 cups nasturtium leaves

1/2 cup thinly sliced nasturtium stems

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

4 cloves garlic

1 cup olive oil

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare an ice-water bath and set aside. Add nasturtium leaves to boiling water and cook for 10 seconds. Drain and transfer to ice-water bath until cool. Drain and set aside. Place leaves, pine nuts, garlic and oil in the jar of a blender. Blend until smooth. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl and fold in stems and cheese.

Note: I have thrown everything in a blender including the stems and cheese and processed and it worked fine.

Donna Cook is the owner of Rabbit Creek Gourmet Foods in Louisburg, Kan. She is also a Master Gardener, Master Food Volunteer and on the board of directors of the Home Baking Association.

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