This is a very old-school type of recipe but it feels like it ought to be ultra-modern, something that an experimental chef would devise.
It’s so easy, so cheap and provides such a great addition to your store cupboard, so it’s worth spending the time to make a jar or two. It only actually takes a few minutes of actual hands-on time, but there is a 24 hour pre-soak and the finished jars need to be laid down for a while for the pickling and flavours to take effect.
I confess, though I’ve known about making nasturtium capers since I was a little girl, I assumed it was a very ancient recipe – and much older than it actually is. This is because I also incorrectly believed nasturtiums were native Northern European (they look the part don’t they?) so I expected it to be a recipe from the middle ages. You know, making use of the scarce decent natural resources, a make-do-and-mend kind of attitude. But, no; the plants were brought over (like so many things) from South America in the late 1600s and then cultivars were developed in the Netherlands within just a few years. The earliest historical records of nasturtium pickles being used are from the late 17th century, so not long after they were introduced as a plant to Europe. The Oxford Companion to Food states that in the 17th century nasturtium capers were the ‘excepted accompaniment to leg of mutton’. Not sure why, but I find that amusing – I think it’s because of the grand term of ‘accepted accompaniment’. I can imagine you’d be ostracised for serving anything else once it was in vogue. Weird times.
I do like these little pickled seeds – and they’re practically free (give or take a few pence for the vinegar and herbs and spices). They add a peppery bite to salads – and ideal with a salad that also features the beautiful leaves and petals from the nasturtiums. They can be used in any dish where you’d reach for ‘normal’ capers (for example, tartar and other sauces for fish) and are great added to burger meat etc or a few added to a curry. I also just love the flowers as hot colours are my most favourite and I grow a huge amount of nasturtiums every summer.
Don’t be put off by the fact that you can forage these from your own (or a willing neighbour’s) garden. Traditional capers are just the seeds off the mediterranean caper bush, and those are typically prepared in a very similar way. Not sure why these have earnt the moniker ‘poor man’s capers’ because presumably normal capers get foraged in just the same way (when not being mass farmed) and were probably ‘poor man’s’ foraged food in their own right.
- Clean jam jar (doesn’t need to be sterilised, but it won’t matter if it is)
- Fresh picked nasturtium seeds – about 75g-90g (this is about as much as you can hold if you cup both of your hands together)
- Cider vinegar or white wine vinegar (I’ve not given an amount as it depends on how big your jam jar is)
- Salt – about two tablespoons
- Black peppercorns – about half a teaspoon
- Mustard seeds – about half a teaspoon
- Bay leaf – 1 large or 2 small (preferably fresh, but dried will ‘do’)
- Your choice of 1 or 2 woody herbs – pick the ones you like the taste of – or try to think what you’ll use the capers for. Will it be mostly fish? Then which herbs do you like to enhance fish dishes – dill? Tarragon?
- Do not use ‘soft’ herbs that will go mushy over time like parsley or basil
- My suggestions to choose from are: rosemary, lavender (one flower head – don’t use if they are already going to seed), tarragon, hyssop, chives, sage, thyme, marjoram or add a couple of dried chillies or a small cinnamon stick or a star anise
- When you pick the nasturtium seeds select only the fully grown ones and discard any that aren’t a nice green colour (you don’t want old-looking ones, the little unsuccessfully grown ones or those with a yellow or red blush on them)
- Pick off any stems or dried bits of the petals and give them a good wash
- Fill a jug with water, add the salt and stir to dissolve
- Add the seeds
- Leave for 24 hours
- Drain the seeds and try them with a piece of kitchen towel or a tea towel
- Put the seeds in the jam jar and fill up with the vinegar – I always use cider vinegar for nasturtium capers, but white wine vinegar is fine too
- Add in the peppercorns, the mustard seeds, the bay leaf/leaves and a max of one or two more herbs. In the images I’ve just added tarragon to give a citrussy hit for fish dishes. I have another pot of nasturtiums capers made in the last few days in which I’ve added dried chillies and a star anise
- Leave for at least a month and ideally about three (I’m laying mine down now for opening around Christmas). I’d suggest using within a year and as long as you used a clean spoon to fish the little gems out each time they should keep that long in the fridge after the first opening