Blooming good

Arundhati Ray | Updated on May 09, 2014

Colour purple: Nasturtiums are great in salads and even as palate cleansers

Blink Nasturtiums   -  BUSINESS LINE

There are edible flowers and then there are edible flowers… And the vibrant, vitamin C-rich nasturtium is more than just a pretty garnish

Our friend Nidhi is an artist and a foodie, and her creations — whether ceramic or culinary — bear her unique brand of aesthetics, imagination and style. At a lunch she hosted a couple of months ago on her rooftop garden, still ablaze with winter flowers, the elegant menu ended with freshly-picked nasturtiums being passed around for guests to pluck off flame-orange petals as a palate freshener that packed a pleasant peppery punch.

I’ve added this novel, quirky use of the flower to my noshing with nasturtiums list — a list that’s already extensive because this attractive plant, an edible powerhouse of vitamin C, just calls out to be used creatively in the kitchen. In general, I love using flowers in food — they add so much style and panache to presentation; besides infusing a dish with distinct flavours. Bengali cuisine has countless ways of serving mocha or banana flower, and crisp, fragile pumpkin flower fritters are a much-awaited seasonal treat. Then there are the more unusual delights for the palate: in cool autumnal Kalimpong, a dish of nakima (ground orchid) stir-fried with the lightest touch of chilli to offset the delicate bitter notes of the mauve flower; at a tea garden in the Dooars, a teatime snack of pakoras made with the pretty blossoms of the tea plant.

Before spring faded away into the heat of summer, taking with it cool-weather flowers that brightened up gardens, terraces and window boxes, I indulged in a nasturtium fest.

The pepper punch of the bright green foliage becomes overpowering with age, but in the young leaves it’s just the kick you need to jazz up potato salads or vamp up the smooth blandness of chicken and fish pates by injecting heat and texture. I love shredding the leaves into verdant confetti and stippling the pale surface of chilled cucumber soup — adding both colour and a mustardy kick to the chilled bowl. Whole leaves also form a zesty layer of green in thin teatime sandwiches whether of ham, cream cheese, eggs or tomato.

But it’s the flowers — in myriad shades of orange and red (and this year I discovered a gorgeous fuchsia pink) — that are the true divas of the kitchen. Their peppery pungency is of a more subtle register than that of the leaves, giving you plenty of flexibility in how you want to use them. Even everyday dishes morph into something special with these blossoms. For example, a simple pasta of penne, cheese, garlic-shot cream and mushrooms gets a gourmet twist if, just before serving, you toss in a bunch of these flowers.

Or introduce the flowers into an oregano-scented Mediterranean-style stir-fry of zucchini, potatoes, red and yellow peppers, adding them just before taking the pan off the heat. Use them in salads — they pair wonderfully with greens like baby lettuce, wispy tendrils of peas, crunchy fennel (several outlets now sell these in convenient mixed packets). Make a truly luxe air-puffed omelette oozing Emmental or Manchego cheese with a few flowers folded in and some strewn on top.

And my absolute favourite: stuffing a platter of these blossoms — all in different shades — with goat cheese or soft feta, placing them on wafer-thin crostini rafts brushed with garlic-scented olive oil and serving them as finger food. The explosion of tastes and textures when you pop one of these pretty canapés into your mouth is incredible.

So when they are in bloom again next season, make the most of these vibrant nasturtiums, using leaves and flowers to add a touch of pepper-laced chic to your table. And while you’re at it, remember to collect the seeds of the blossoms — preserve them in brine for 3-4 weeks, and you have the perfect substitute for capers!

Arundhati Ray is a food writer currently based in Kolkata.

Published on May 09, 2014

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