The view from the upstairs window was alarming. Titanic vines, full of purpose, had so engulfed my 30-inch-tall marigolds that only a few specks of gold color could be seen beneath the huge leaves. Tumbling over a low granite wall, the plants had begun to snake through the herb garden, with the alpine strawberries next in their sights. These were not squash vines, or pumpkins, or even kudzu, the famous “vine that ate the South.” They were trailing nasturtiums.
On the previous year’s site, they’d been harmless, to say the least. I’d sown them at the front edges of two perennial borders, in hopes they would creep out into the central path the way they do in Monet’s garden at Giverny. That they did, though somewhat meekly. Perhaps they liked Monet’s soil better than mine, I pondered, or his Mediterranean summers. So, the following year I gave them a luxurious bed all their own, with loose fertile soil. I’d forgotten to heed one of the time-honored gardener’s maxims, “Be nasty to nasturtiums.” Too-rich soil leads to leaf and stem growth at the expense of flowers. Flowers there were, large and long-stemmed in flamboyant colors, but they were hidden from view and hard to pick.
I’ve always considered the nasturtium (Tropaeoleum majus) a crossover plant, equally at home in the flower garden and the vegetable plot. The edible flowers are gorgeous on the plate, or chopped up in cream cheese for a dainty sandwich, and the round leaves have a great peppery flavor, perfect for spicing up a summer salad. But this present crop of foliage seemed to have too much bite to be edible, and these leaves were enormous — many of them 8 inches across and more. Still, they were certainly impressive looking. As I yanked them out of the Tuscan kale on the other side of the bed, I wondered how I might put them to use. They were very flat and smooth and a bright medium green. I decided they’d be great for lining a platter under sliced tomatoes, say, or chicken salad, or deviled eggs. I’d often done this with grape leaves, which set off food perfectly, and could even cover up a platter’s chipped edges. That gave me another idea. People stuff grape leaves, why not do that with nasturtiums? They stuff cabbage leaves, too. They even stuff large leaves of lettuce.
I looked up the recipe for authentic Greek stuffed grape leaves (dolmadakia). Most versions have you mix up a stuffing with raw rice, wrap it in the swaddling clothes of a grape leaf, then line up the little bundles seam side down in a covered baking dish partially filled with water. You bake them for at least an hour, to tenderize the leaves and let the rice absorb the liquid. I decided to use some leftover cooked rice instead, mixed with onion, capers, pine nuts, parsley, olive oil and feta cheese. I thought I’d make some with grape leaves and some with nasturtium. I placed a heaping tablespoonful on each leaf, folded the bottom up, then one side, then the top and finally the other side, trying to make the packages neat and snug. Immediately I realized I was on to something. Even after simmering the grape leaves in boiling water, they were a little stiff and hard to roll, and the deep indentations in the leaf margins didn’t help. The nasturtiums, on the other hand, rolled as easily as a soft cotton handkerchief. and they were the perfect shape — a slightly flattened circle, with the stem (easily snipped off) near the center.
After an hour of cooking, my grape leaves were still tough and fibrous, and a sort of drab Army green. The stuffing fell out when you tried to eat one. Perhaps it worked better if you used raw rice, or had more skill in wrapping, or were Greek. In any case, the nasturtium bundles remained bright green, held their shape, and only needed about a half hour of cooking — just enough to melt the cheese. They retained their pleasant flavor, but with only a little of their former pungency. Jubilant, I tried cooking them other ways. I chopped them up and sautéed them for a minute or two in a little bacon fat, then topped them with liver and caramelized onions. “What are these greens?”, my husband asked. “They’re delicious.”
I felt I had tamed a tiger. Another year, the monster might be planted among veggies, with all the rich soil they want, but I’d need to train them up a trellis so they wouldn’t attack their neighbors. That would also make it easier to find and pick the flowers. I’m going to keep stuffing them too, maybe next time with a mixture of rice, lamb, olives, garlic and mint. And what else could be stuffed? All the large leaves in the garden suddenly beckon. How about kale, collards, Swiss chard or radicchio? Kudzu anyone?
Barbara Damrosch’s latest cookbook is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”