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GARDEN FRESH : Pepper From a Petal

August 05, 1993|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Mother Nature clearly has a lusty palate, since she created so much of the pizazz we call pepper--named, of course, after tiny berries native to southern India and Ceylon.

For example, all parts of mustard plants, from seeds to leaves to flowers, have a peppery bite. Ginger root, leaves and flowers are musky-peppery. Chicories and rocket are bitter-peppery. Radishes and horseradishes are pungent-peppery. Nutmeg, allspice, cardamom, cloves and clove-pinks are sweet-peppery. Sweet basil's nip is spicy, as is peppermint's. And there's the cool-hot world of cresses--water, garden and upland. Their taste is almost winey-peppery.

And have you heard of Peruvian cress? Perhaps not. In fact, it's not a cress but a pet name for the most ravishing of pepper tastes: nasturtiums. Peruvian, because nasturtiums are native to the Andes; other pet names are Indian and Mexican cress. But my grandmother's name for them, as well as my mother's and mine, is "nasties," the sort of diminutive one can give only to the most enchanting of flowers.

To me, the flavor of nasturtiums seems more complex than most of those with a peppery disposition. It's at once green and seasoned, soft and sharp, sweet and bitter. Fill your mouth with a flower, and after you've eaten it, your mouth is still filled with the astringency of what the beverage trade calls botanicals--a mysterious realm of roots, barks and herbs. The flavor of nasturtiums is reminiscent of what lingers on the tongue after a swallow of exceedingly dry vermouth.

Buds and flowers hold the most concentrated taste--they can tickle your nose! In fact, nasturtium means "nose twister." The plant contains the same oil found in mustards--slightly sulfurous. Crisp, skinny stems are milder, rather celery-peppery. And leaves are milder still, lettuce-peppery.

So if you think of nasturtiums as a sprightly condiment as well as a decorative element, all sorts of ideas will pop into your head. For example, press flowers and leaves into hot melted cheese on toast--not only do they transform the mundane into sheer delight, their pepperiness comes through loud and clear. Instead of spinach or herbs to flavor a savory custard or quiche, finely chop every part of nasturtiums. For a cold summer soup, substitute nasties in the recipe for cress or sorrel. Pairing like with like, my mother floats a brilliant half-opened blossom of nasturtium in her glass of iced vermouth.

All things being equal, the degree of pepperiness in nasturtiums seems to be in proportion to the starkness of their lot. Just enough water to keep them from drooping, full sun, and soil on the lean side produce an extravagant display of flowers with great pungency. It's an I'll Show You! attitude I love. To get lush green leaves and few flowers with mild taste--wimpy nasties--give them rich soil, afternoon shade and plenty of water. . . . No, don't.

Actually, nasturtiums are happiest in sunny but temperate climates. Which means that in all but the mountains and deserts of Southern California, nasties grow as perennials. They're so easy. I know that remark can be frustrating--I've had trouble with a lot of plants that are considered easy. But nasturtiums are truly a cinch. They're most fond of sandy soil but grow wonderfully in clay. In the adobe earth of Malibu, we had orange-gold and green swaths of nasturtiums beneath a grove of eucalyptus trees the year around.

Here in the mountains, succulent vines and stalks dissolve in frost. But before then, their seeds have dropped in abundance. After frost, I don't clean up vigorously beneath the remnants of vines. In spring, any seeds I see on the ground I tuck into it. I keep the area moist, and along about May there are baby nasturtiums everywhere. At that stage, they're easily transplanted to where I'd rather have them. (Books say you can't transplant nasties. Balderdash!)

And although it's wise to rotate crops through your garden, I've had nasturtiums in the same spots for years with no problems.

I find all cultivars equally tasty, and many old-fashioned cultivars are fragrant. The most aesthetic leaves are Alaska's--green marbled with cream--and their flowers, a mix of colors, are lovely. Empress of India adds deep crimson flowers against dark leaves, so I mix them in. Actually, each spring I add seeds of every nasturtium available to the volunteers, because each strain has its special beauty, and sooner or later, the successive generations of volunteers become puny.

In spring, seeds are sown where they're to grow, the same time as marigolds, sunflowers and zinnias. In the low desert, sow seeds in autumn against a sunny wall and they'll bloom until beastly weather hits.

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