Whilst walking in the woods this week, I managed to save the life of, and then witness the death of, a friend’s pet chicken. All in the space of ten minutes. Life, or rather death, had it in for the bird from the moment it decided to escape the coop and run, head-bobbing, into the forest. No sooner had we shooed it back behind the garden gate than a large, obsidian canine pounced and pursued the poor thing into a one-way pillow fight. And then it was over.
My friend wasn’t at home that morning and so I was left standing in her garden with my children, the green grass speckled with the snow-white feathers and lifeless body of her chicken, clutching my phone and trying to work out the best way of announcing the death of her beloved pet, whilst disclosing that I’d been a bystander at the killing. I dialled her number…
And then there I was, at the scene of the crime, leaving a bloody answer phone message. I NEVER EXPECTED THE ANSWER PHONE! I can only thank my friend – who I’d expected to call back in a tearful rage – that she understood that the demise was Darwinian and natural and wild, and that there’d been nothing that I could have done. The chicken was meant to go.
On the subject of wildness, this week I wanted to use an ingredient that runs wild in The Mother-in-Law’s Garden: the nasturtium. Often regarded as a weed – and definitely not considered enough as a viable edible by modern households – nasturtiums are, in fact, delicious, free and incredibly good for you. And they’re en vogue.
The funny thing is, like all trends, weeds have come full circle. Today, you’ll find ‘edible flowers’ all over the menus of top-notch establishments, and fancy upmarket greengrocers sell boxes of them for a small fortune. But I suggest you just pluck a few handfuls from your garden or from the local park, and make this delicious pesto that neither involves purchasing bags of limp foliage from the supermarket nor spending anywhere near as much money as if you had done the aforementioned blaspheming act. As always, you’d be better off going for a walk down the road and scrumping over your neighbours’ hedgerows.
Named under the Tropaeolum genus in the 18th century by the founding father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, the nasturtium species were previously known as ‘Indian cresses’ because they originated from South and Central Americas, and were used in salads like cress. Likewise, on the palette nasturtiums have a peppery flavour similar to watercress, as it contains high amounts of benzyl isothiocyanate, a volatile mustard oil. The flowers and leaves are high in vitamin C, iron and anthocyanins (antioxidant), and the plants have long been used in herbal medicine for their antiseptic, antibiotic and healing properties, particularly to treat respiratory and sinus conditions, urinary tract infections and kidney problems, and promote the formation of new red blood cells. Research also shows that nasturtiums contain properties that stimulate the capillaries that promote hair growth and are useful in the treatment of acne. (That’s The Husband and I sorted.)
The most common domestic cultivar in use is a hybrid of T. magus, which is edible. Flowers can be cream, orange, yellow, red or any variation, and its leaves a solid green or striped. They are easily grown and thrive in even poor soils, which make it a perfect edible plant for beginners. I grew a mottled, stripy-leafed variety this year, which is beautiful – see below.
Like all foraged goods, you’d probably want to avoid nasturtiums that are below knee-high on a public footpath. Dog and pesto don’t mix. You can also make this pesto in advance as it keeps well in the fridge (for a week), and use it in other pasta, vegetable, fish or meat dishes.
Serves 4 hungry adults and takes no more than an hour to make all component parts. Once you’ve foraged for your ingredients that is.
50g nasturtium leaves, washed
50g parmesan or grana padano cheese
80g pine nuts
2 large cloves garlic
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
250g mix of whole grains (I use a mixture of barley, brown rice, spelt, durum wheat and oats)*
1 shallot or white onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 1/4 litres vegetable or chicken stock
Salt and pepper
A handful of pine nuts, toasted in a pan
A handful of nasturtium flowers, checked for bugs
First make the pesto. Grate the cheese finely.
Crush the garlic.
Add all the ingredients to a food processor or blender. Whizz…
When the pesto has come together, pour in the olive oil and pulse in the blender once more briefly. You shouldn’t need to season the pesto because of the pepperiness of the nasturtiums and the saltiness of the cheese. But go ahead if your palette dictates otherwise.
Store in a jar in the fridge, covered with a little extra olive oil.
Now make the risotto. Finely chop your onion.
In a large frying pan, soften the onion in the oil over a low heat for 7 or so minutes, stirring now and then. Heat your stock at the same time or make it now, if using ready-made bouillon or stock cubes.
Add the grains, stir and cook for a couple more minutes. Then add enough stock to just cover the grains and simmer, stirring continuously.
Keep adding the stock, stirring all the time, as the liquid is absorbed. The dish is cooked when the grains are soft but still al dente (with bite), and all the liquid absorbed.
Remove from the heat and stir in 4 heaped tablespoons of the pesto. Season to taste.
Serve 4 healthy portions with another dollop of pesto on top, some toasted pine nuts, a little more grated parmesan, and a scattering of plucked petals from the nasturtium flowers.
* You could make this risotto using typical risotto rice, like carnoroli or arborio. You may need to add more or less stock, depending on the grains you use too.