At the end of class on Saturday, we had a chicken-tarragon terrine to steady us through cocktail hour, and I opened a jar of pickled nasturtium pods to go along with it. I call them CALIFORNIA CAPERS because they are just like capers, but better. The lovely Betty Hallock, my favorite food writer in LA, even mentioned them in the write-up she did on the class in the LA Times food blog, Daily Dish. They are, as she quotes me saying, the best capers ever. Plus I grew them in my backyard.
You know nasturtiums, right? They're the gaudy little flower that blooms hot yellow, orange, salmon and red among round leaves, ABOVE. It sprawls like ivy if given half a chance, and the untended patch of nasturtiums on the back hillside at Greenvalley has increased in size each of the six years I've been here. You'll see them growing wild along roadsides all over Southern California; I can think of stands on Mullholland Drive, on the PCH in Malibu and in Franklin Canyon Park.
The nasturtium season peaks around the Cinco de Mayo, and because of their color and exuberance, they always put me in mind of folkloric festivals. To be honest, I used to have a rather condescending attitude towards the nasturtium—that it's a quaint flower, pretty but simple.
Then I went to diner at Connie Wald's house in Bevery Hills.
Connie's story is a long one, but to be brief: She was a Claire McCardell model many, many years ago. Her final husband was the Hollywood movie producer Jerry Wald (An Affair to Remember, Peyton Place, From Here to Eternity) and she remains to this day a doyenne of the Beverly Hills social set. One of Connie's best friends was Audrey Hepburn, and today her closest circle includes Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale. They're "the Girls."
Sharp as a tack at 90-some years old, Connie has a story about everyone and everything. She once told me about standing on a terrace in Whitley Heights with Rudolph Valentino and admiring the fragrant citrus groves in the Cahuenga Pass below. (Today that's the path of the 101 Freeway.) Another time we got to talking about The New Yorker magazine and she gave me a succinct critique of every one of the magazine's editors from the current, David Remnick, back to the original, Harold Ross.
Connie has lived in the same house in Beverly Hills since 1946 and the decor is exactly how it was then—perfect and unchanging. She grows the most magnificent roses and camelias.
But apart from all that, Connie is one of the most naturally beautiful and stylish women I have ever met—and that's saying something after 15 years of working in and around the fashion industry. Despite being unfailingly nice—a sour word never crosses her lips—she is nonetheless captivating company. She's the opposite of a snob. She's a paragon of taste. Got the picture?
Ok, so one night I went to her house for dinner. Antonio the butler came to the door. A footman brought me a drink. Connie was in front of a crackling fire with Gore Vidal. And the house was positively filled with vases of nasturtiums gathered from Connie's gardens. "I just love them," she said.
I no longer condescend to the nasturtium.
All parts of the plant are edible. Sometimes you'll the find the leaves or the flowers themselves in salads at locavore restaurants. The taste is peppery, like a particularly intense radish. The part you pickle is the seed pod, ABOVE
A few days after the bloom fades, the plant produces its distinctive three-part pod at the end of a long stem that often has the arabesque flourishes of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence. Collect them before they become too dry and hard. Just pinch them off. Then you soak them in several changes of brine to remove the peppery sting. Then you cover them with vinegar and store them in the fridge. That's it. Delicious.
Where are you going to get the pods?
I've never seen them for sale, but at farmers markets I sometimes see bunches of nasturtium flowers. You could ask the farmer, very nicely, if he or she could bring you some. Or you could keep your eyes peeled for roadside patches and gather nasturtiums "from the wild."
Or you could grow you own—like Connie does.
CALIFORNIA CAPERS, aka PICKLED NASTURTIUM PODS
1 pint fresh nasturtium pods
white wine vinegar
1 Gently rinse and drain the pods, then cover with a brine of 1.5 tablespoons of salt to 1 cup water. Soak uncovered at room temperature overnight.
2 Drain and repeat. Don't worry about the gross smell, but pick out any soggy bits of blossom that may cling to the pods.
3 Drain and once again cover with brine.
4 On the fourth day, drain and pack into a jar. Cover with vinegar and, if you want, season with a slice of shallot. Cover the jar and store in the refridgerator. It will keep a year although probably not last that long. They can be used in any recipe calling for capers.