The Nasturtium Caper: Happiness in a Jar

This is treasure money can’t buy… jars full of the essence of summer and happiness.

Making nasturtium capers involves two of my favorite activities: foraging in the garden and practicing kitchen alchemy. By the end of summer, my garden is overrun with nasturtiums. They self-seed readily, and I love their bright red, yellow, and orange flowers so much that I pretty much let them grow wherever they want. Up until now, I have limited myself to eating the spicy flowers in salads, but I was inspired by fellow gardener and cook Mary Bard to harvest the seedpods to make nasturtium capers.

Real capers are made from the flower buds of the caper bush, found growing wild all around the Mediterranean Sea. Preserved in salt or vinegar, the buds are transformed into intense bursts of flowery, sour, salty flavor used sparingly to enliven many dishes.

The green seedpods of the nasturtium plant have a fiery intensity of their own that comes close to duplicating that of the true caper when pickled. My nasturtiums started making seedpods in mid-September and continued prolifically through October. The pods are found in groups of two or three hanging from curly stems under the foliage, so you have to crawl around under the plants to search for them–that’s the foraging part. Be sure to harvest only the green pods. If they are starting to turn yellow, they will be hard and un-tasty.

Making the nasturtium capers is easy: For every cup of seedpods, make a brine with 1 cup water and 2 Tbs. salt. Bring the brine to a boil and pour it over the seedpods in a glass jar. Cover, and let the jar sit at room temperature for 3 days. Drain the seedpods in a strainer and transfer them to a sterilized 1-cup canning jar. Bring 3/4-cup white wine vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan and pour it over the seedpods. Put a sterilized lid on the jar and screw on the ring. Cool until the lids seal. The capers are ready in 3 days and will keep 6 months or more if stored in the refrigerator or other cool place.

Nasturtium capers are milder and larger than true capers. Serve them with olives and other pickled or roasted vegetables as antipasti. Add a few to pasta dishes, braised chicken, or fish. Sprinkle them into potato, cauliflower, tuna or bread salad. Or, use them to spark up roasted root vegetables.

Caper-Dill Vinaigrette 

With a mortar and pestle, make a paste of 1 garlic clove and a pinch of kosher or sea salt. Whisk the paste together with 3 Tbs white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 2 Tbs finely chopped fresh dill, 1 Tbs chopped drained capers, 1/2 tsp lemon zest, and freshly ground black pepper. Season with salt to taste.

Drizzle the vinaigrette over grilled or pan-seared salmon, or use it to dress boiled new potatoes or beets.

Tapenade

Tapenade is an intensely flavored spread that is a great topping for bruschetta, foccacia, or flatbreads. I like to play around with the ingredients but always include olives and capers.

Use a food processor to make a coarsely chopped paste of 1/3 cup sundried tomatoes (or oven-dried), 1/2 cup pitted olives (Nicoise, Kalamata, or oil-cured black), 3 to 4 Tbs rinsed and drained capers, 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 large clove finely chopped garlic, a pinch red chile flakes, 4 Tbs chopped parsley, and 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil. Add salt, black pepper, and fresh lemon juice to taste.

Great additions: caramelized onions, roasted red pepper, mint, anchovies…

Pepperonata with Capers and Olives

Use this tangy sauté of sweet peppers to top bruschetta, pasta, or polenta. Make the pepperonata with ripe red, yellow, or orange bell peppers or long Italian sweet peppers of the Corno di Toro type.

You will need 3 or 4 bell peppers or 4 to 6 Italian sweet peppers (about 1 lb.) Stem and seed the peppers and cut them into 1/4 to 1/2-inch slices. Warm 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the peppers and stir well. Sprinkle with 1/4 tsp kosher or sea salt and sauté, tossing often, until the peppers are tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Add 2 tsp minced garlic and 1 finely chopped hot red pepper (or a large pinch red chile flakes). Sauté 20 to 30 seconds. Stir in 1/4 cup chopped Kalamata or Gaeta olives, 1 Tbs chopped capers, and 1 Tbs red wine vinegar. Sauté 1 minute, then remove from the heat and stir in 3 Tbs chopped parsley. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Alternative flavorings:  Add 1/2 tsp crushed fennel seed with the garlic and chile. Replace the parsley with 2 Tbs fresh mint or basil. Add some toasted walnuts or pine nuts to the finished dish. Add 2 or 3 finely chopped anchovy fillets with the capers and olives.

Roasted Leeks with Capers and Green Olives 

Serve this as a salad, a side dish, or an appetizer. It can also be made with roasted red onion. Allow 1 medium leek or 1 medium onion per serving. Add thinly sliced raw fennel bulb for a dynamite combination.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or coat it lightly with olive oil.

Trim 6 to 8 medium size (1-inch diameter) leeks of tough outer and upper leaves. Remove the roots, keeping the base intact. If the leeks are small, leave them whole. Otherwise, cut each leek in half lengthwise and wash well to get rid of dirt trapped between the layers. Dry thoroughly. If using onions, peel and cut them in quarters, leaving enough of the base to hold them together.

Drizzle the leeks or onions with 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil and toss gently to coat well. Sprinkle with a pinch or two coarse salt. Place them on the baking sheet cut side up and roast 25 to 35 minutes. Turn them over after 15 minutes. The vegetables should be tender and starting to char on the edges.

Arrange the leeks and/or onions on a platter. Distribute 1/4 cup chopped green olives and 2 Tbs chopped capers over them. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a splash or balsamic vinegar.

To make a salad, chop the leeks into 1-inch pieces. Toss with the chopped olives and capers, 1 small finely sliced fennel bulb, and 2 or 3 Tbs chopped fennel greens. Dress with fresh lemon juice or vinegar.

Pasta Puttanesca

This sauce is deeply flavorful and robust, with a lively cast of characters contributing to the complex flavor… garlic, red chile, parsley, oregano, olives, and capers. Traditionally, Puttanesca sauce includes a “secret” ingredient–anchovies. This ingredient is secret only because the strongly flavored little fish melt into the sauce, lending a trace of savory brininess… an essential undertone. Make this with garden-ripe fresh cherry or plum tomatoes in summer, or with good quality whole plum tomatoes any time of year.

Warm 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Stir in 4 Tbs finely chopped onion and sauté 5 or 6 minutes, until softened. Stir in 3 minced garlic cloves and 1 minced small hot red pepper. Sauté 1 minute. Add 3 or 4 chopped anchovy fillets (well rinsed if stored in salt), stirring with a wooden spoon until they melt into the oil. Add 4 Tbs chopped parsley leaves, 1 tsp dried oregano, and one 28-oz can Italian plum tomatoes or 1 qt home-canned plum tomatoes and their juice. Break the tomatoes into pieces with your hands or a wooden spoon. Add 1/4 cup dry red wine and simmer briskly 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Reduce the heat to medium-low, add 4 tsp capers (chopped if large) and 8 to 10 Gaeta or Kalamata olives, pitted and cut in half. Stir well and cook 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat, or continue simmering to thicken, if you prefer. Taste the sauce for seasoning.

Serve tossed with pasta or spooned over polenta, with freshly grated Pecorino, Romano or Parmesan cheese.

The Cat, Big Boy, Enjoying the Garden

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4 thoughts on “The Nasturtium Caper: Happiness in a Jar

  1. Louise, Thanks for the article and tip, because I’ always looking for new recipes. In the recipe you say brine them, drain and the cover with vinegar. In the intro you say ” Preserved in salt or vinegar, the buds are transformed into intense bursts of flowery, sour, salty flavor used sparingly to enliven many dishes.” May they be preserved in just a salt brine? I’m allergic to vinegar so looking for another option.

    • Arthur Schwartz, an honorary Southern Italian, has a detailed description of capers and caper-making in his wonderful book, The Southern Italian Table. He believes the best capers may be the salt-cured varieties from two volcanic islands off the coast of Sicily. This is how they are made: “After harvest, the capers are separated from their leaves and twigs, then buried in salt…The capers sit for about a week in their own brine–the liquid the salt extracts from them–before they are drained. They are sun-dried for a day or so, then salted again. The best capers stay dry after their final salting.” Salt-cured capers must be soaked to remove excess salt before using. Use kosher, sea, or pickling salt for this process

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