Friday, July 30, 2010

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Capuchin Capers? Them's Just Pickled Nasturtium Pods

The first I’d heard of capuchin capers was in John Evelyn’s 1699 Acetaria. Subtitled A Discourse of Sallets, the book details the types and uses of plants destined for grand salads of 300 years ago. In recent years, we’ve become accustomed to more eclectic salads than those of, say, the mid-20th century. When once iceberg lettuce ruled America, we now don’t give a second glance at arugula, mâche, radicchio, and perhaps torn herbs tossed in the bowl.

Nasturtium seed pods
17th and 18th century salads — or, rather, sallets, salats, and such spellings — could be a riot of colors, vegetables, fruits, flowers…and seeds. Capuchin capers were nothing more than the seed pods of nasturtium plants preserved in the manner of more exotic — and pricey — Mediterranean capers.

Although many older sources mention the striking similarity between pickled nasturtium pods and actual capers (also a pickled bud), I gave them short shrift; it seemed just one more example of a foodstuff born of scarcity while users convinced themselves it was just as good as the real thing.

Turns out, capuchin and Mediterranean capers are surprisingly similar. The color is not quite the right green (too light), the covering (ridged and grooved) is off, but the smell and — more importantly — the taste is close enough that after running an experimental batch earlier this summer, I went into the fields to gather enough buds for a few pints.

Fence row nasturtium flowers and seed pods in San Diego
Evelyn notes nasturtiums ought “to be monthly Sown: But above all the Indian, moderately hot, and aromatick, quicken the torpent Spirits, and purge the Brain, and are of Singular effect against the Scorbute [scurvy]. Both the tender Leaves, Calices, Cappuchin Capers, and Flowers, are laudably mixed with the colder Plants.”

“Monthly sown” because nasturtiums are in their entirety such useful plants and a supply throughout the growing season makes good sense. For using the plants’ “hot and aromatick” properties into winter, Evelyn recommends candying the buds as strewing herbs (that is, strewn on the floors of homes to keep down the stink in pre-modern England). Haven’t tried that. But those capers are another story.

Evelyn’s cappuchin capers (also capuchin, capuchine, capuccin, etc) are named after capucine, the French word for nasturtium. One presumes the French name for the flower comes from Capuchin friars who may have grown them as medicinal plants in their monasteries. One is not, however, a scholar of French etymology, and will leave that that shit alone for now [edit 2 Aug 2010: see Tammy's note below for confirmation of my inexpert use of French].

Adapted from The River Cottage Preserves Handbook’s recipe for Nasturium “capers”, here’s

Capuchin Capers

5 tsp salt
7 oz nasturtium seed pods
2 bay leaves (see "Notes on aromatics" below)
2.5 cup white/rice wine vinegar

Add the salt to 2.5 cups distilled or bottled water. Stir to dissolve. Rinse and drain the seed pods, then add them to the brine. Allow to stand 24 hours at room temperature.

Drain and dry the pods well. Pack into sterilized small jars, add the bay leaves (and/or other aromatics, if using). Leave about half an inch of headroom, then top with vinegar. Seal with vinegar-proof lids and leave in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks.
Notes on aromatics: Poke around old receipt books and you’ll find seemingly unending recipes for nasturtiums and their buds. They do have a peppery bite and go well in salads, with steaks, etc. Historically, a broad range of aromatics have complemented that bite when preserving the seed pods: dill, tarragon, chervil, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, cloves, bay leaves, etc. I used bay leaves only, but play with the flavors that suit you.

Strew the “capers” in salads, use them in tartar sauce, make compound butters, season tapenade with them. They’re versatile, they’re cheap, and they’re a bit of the 17th century you can bring to your own table as easy as pie. Or, rather, pye.

Goes well with:
  • Evelyn, John (1699) Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets. Prospect Books out of the UK has issued a handsome printing edited by Christopher Driver and with a forward by Tom Jaine — Powell’s in Portland carries it. (Prospect also released C. Anne Wilson’s laudable history of distillation, Water of Life).
  • My take on The River Cottage Preserves Handbook.

4 comments:

Tammy said...

I sprinkle the flowers in my salad (along with the blossoms of borage, sage, chive...); I haven't ever really paid attention to the seed pods. Just to be pedantic: in French, the nasturtium is a capucine, with an 'e' at the end.

Matthew Rowley said...

Bah. This is what I get for looking at old French dictionaries late at night with no reading specs on. Thanks for the correction, Tammy. Will fix right away.

The salads, by the way, sound great.

Scott_D said...

Great topic that is getting more coverage. Did you see the Martha Stewart show last season where David Kinch made Nasturtium Risotto? I was searching for that recipe when I found out about pickling these guys.

I made a couple of batches this summer and did one batch with long stems so that you could serve them in a martini. Not everyone loves them, but it's an interesting garnish. I really need to try them out in more places as I have three jars of them.

Since Tammy set pedantic precedence, "(also a pickled bud)" isn't quite accurate. They're a seed pod and the caper is a bud. The caper seed pods are pickled as caper berries. Not a big fan of them though.

Matthew Rowley said...

Scott ~ You're right, "also a pickled bud" was an artifact of an earlier version of that sentence. Strike "also" and all else stet. Looks like I've got it as "pod" or "seed pod" everywhere else.

I missed the nasturtium risotto recipe, but it's completely in the spirit of so many older recipes I did find. I wouldn't say nasturtiums are the New Hot Thing, but they are creeping up more and more these days. Anyone who's seen pictures of my cocktails can tell that I'm not a huge fan of garnishes, but nasturtium flowers in a salad aren't just pretty adornments; they add a hot, spicy, almost peppery bite.

Hmmm..might have to go hit the fields and see what's growing now...