I recently made Pasta alla norma and although this post was first posted on May 4, 2012 and I am posting it again on 25th April 2018. Ripe tomatoes and eggplants continue into autumn and although the basil may have finished, fresh mint leaves add an interesting fresh taste to the dish.
Pasta alla Normaisone of those dishes Sicilians are extremely fond ofespecially in late summer when the tomatoes are ripe, the basil is abundant and the eggplants are at their best.
There are some summer pasta dishes which call for uncooked, ripe tomatoes and when possible I try not to substitute tinned tomatoes for Pasta alla Norma.
All it is = a salsa of fresh tomatoes, short pasta (caserecce are good) and fried eggplants – usually cubed and added to the pasta once it has been dressed with the tomato salsa. Ricotta salata tops it all off. Easy stuff. Failing ricotta salata, use a strong pecorino cheese… both these cheeses are preferred by Sicilians; parmigiano is the preferred cheese in Northern Italy.
The dish originates from Catania, the city that my mother’s family comes from. Many presume that the dish is named after the opera, La Norma, by the composer Vincenzo Bellini who was born in Catania (1801-1835), but there are others who think that the expression ‘anorma’ (in Sicilian)was commonly used in the early 1900s to describe food that was cooked true to form (i.e. as normal, as it should be) and according to all the rules and regulations specified in the recipe.
I ate a version of Pasta alla Norma in a seafood restaurant in San Leone (on the coast, near Agrigento). The tagliatelle were presented on top of half an eggplant, (that had been cut in half and then fried). The sauce also contained a few currants and a few anchovies, thin slices of bottarga (dry, salted tuna roe) and cubes of ricotta salata on top. It does look very spectacular, but if you intend to do this, and are using a large round eggplant, cut the eggplant horizontally and remove a slice from the centre of it to make it thinner – the eggplant will cook more evenly. Follow the recipe below and to the salsa, add a tablespoon of currants and a couple of chopped anchovies. In Sicily bottarga is salted, cured fish tuna roe rather than bottarga made with grey mullet as common in Sardegna (Sardinia).
I have used casarecce, 500g
eggplants, 500g or more
extra virgin olive oil, 1 ½ cups ( ½ cup for the tomato salsa,1 cup to fry the eggplant)
garlic, 3 cloves
ripe tomatoes, 1k, peeled and chopped
salt (a little) and freshly ground black pepper to taste
basil, fresh leaves (10-15) some for the salsa and some for decoration
Remove the stem end of eggplant and without peeling and slice or cut into cubes. I do not usually salt my eggplant; sometimes I briefly soak it in salted water so that the eggplant does not absorb as much oil. Pat-dry the eggplant and fry in 1 cup of olive oil until golden. Drain on paper towels.
Make the tomato salsa: place the tomatoes in the pan with garlic, oil, salt and some basil leaves: cook uncovered on medium heat till it is thick.
Cook pasta and drain.
Mix the pasta with the tomato sauce, place in a large serving bowl and top with the eggplants and the remaining basil (or mint).
Present with grated cheese, preferably ricotta salata.
Culturally In Australia Easter is no big deal, however in Italy it is tied to religious observances and fish is traditionally eaten on Good Friday by Italian Catholics even if they are not practising Catholics.
I plan to cook something simple – a pasta dish with Mussels. Cozze in Italian, cuzzili in Sicilian.
This is not a complicated dish. It is made with fresh mussels and a little fresh tomato, but not so much to mask the taste of the other ingredients.
Local mussels are prolific in Victoria and I regularly buy them at the Queen Victoria Market; these are generally farmed in Port Phillip Bay and recently from Mount Martha; when I get the chance, I like to go to Portarlington, where they are sold straight off the boats. Mussels are sustainable.
Red, ripe tomatoes are fabulous at this time of year, but tinned tomatoes are OK too. I even used some ripe, yellow, heirloom tomatoes in this sauce!
Spaghettini (thin spaghetti) are used for this dish – the thin strands result in a greater surface area and allow greater absorption of the sauce.
The sauce is prepared quickly while the pasta is cooking. The same ingredients and method of cooking this dish can also be used with other fish – try squid.
Do not be horrified and think me a phony for using grated cheese with fish! The rest of Italy may not, but Sicilians do it. Using cheese is not necessary, especially if you like to savor the fresh taste of the tomatoes.
mussels, 2 kg fresh, live mussels
red tomatoes, fresh, 500 g, chopped and peeled
garlic, 3 chopped…to taste
parsley, 1 cup finely chopped
extra virgin olive oil, ½ – ¾ cup
salt and pepper
basil, fresh, some stalks and leaves in the sauce and some leaves to decorate and provide a last-minute aroma
grated pecorino, (optional), to taste
Clean the mussels by rubbing them against each other in cold water (or use a plastic scourer). Pull the beards sharply towards the pointy end of the shell.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep pan.
Add the mussels.
Cover and cook over a brisk flame, shaking the pan every now and then, until the mussels have opened. Turn off the flame and let them cool slightly, then remove and discard the shells of about ¾ of them. Use the whole mussels for decoration.
If you have given the mussels sufficient time to open and some have remained closed, there is no need to discard them. They are very much alive, place them back on heat and they will eventually open.
Save the juice from the mussels in a separate vessel.
Add the onion to a new pan, sauté till golden.
Add the chopped tomatoes and some basil stalks with leaves attached (these can be removed at time of serving).
Simmer the sauce for about 8-10 minutes, just to blend the flavours and to evaporate some of the tomato juice. Place the tomato sauce aside.
Cook the spaghettini.
Add some extra virgin olive oil and garlic to a new pan (or wipe down the same pan that you have used to cook the sauce). Soften the garlic and add the parsley.
Add the mussel meat to the pan and toss the ingredients around for a few minutes before adding the tomato sauce and as much of the mussel juice as you think you will need for the sauce. Remove the cooked basil (it has done its job).
Add the mussels in their shells (gently) to warm through.
Drain the pasta. Add it to the pan with the rest of the ingredients toss them around till they are well coated. Be gentle with the cooked mussels in their shells as you want to keep the mussel meat in the shell.
Add fresh basil leaves.
Present with grated cheese for those who wish.
Pasta with cozze is eaten all over Italy but in Northern Italy parsley and garlic are the preferred flavourings and no tomatoes.
Albacore tuna is sustainable, cheap in price and much under rated in Australia. It is not sashimi grade so the Asian export market does not want it and therefore in Australia we also tend to undervalue it. It is denser in texture but still excellent for cooking (lightly or cooked for longer). As in Australia, Blue fin tuna is the preferred tuna in Sicily; if it is sustainable depends on how and where it is caught – it should be wild caught and aquaculture is not an option.
Unfortunately I rarely find albacore tuna where I live in Melbourne and if I do, I always grab it when I can and cook it as I would cook blue fin tuna.
I like tuna seared and left rare centrally but my Sicilian relatives eat tuna very well done and this is also how it is presented in the traditional home-style restaurants in Sicily.
In Sicily there are numerous ways tuna but Tonno alla stemperata is one of the favourites in the south eastern part of Sicily. It was first cooked for me by one of my cousins, Rosetta, who lives in Ragusa. She and her husband have a holiday house on the beach at Marina di Ragusa, and she usually buys most of her fish from the fishermen on the beach.
Although Rosetta prefers to use tuna in this recipe, any firm-fleshed fish, thickly sliced, is suitable. She prefers to cut the tuna into large cubes – this allows greater penetration of the flavours in the sauce and of course, it will cook to a greater degree and more quickly.
Rosetta cooked the fish in the morning and we ate it for lunch, at room temperature…in Australia you may find this unusual but eating it at room temperature and some time after it has been cooked allows the flavours time to develop.
A version of this recipe is also in my first book: Sicilian Seafood Cooking.
I have used Albacore tuna,trevally,mackerel or flathead (better choice category) successfully in this recipe.
tuna or firm-fleshed fish, 4 slices
sliced white onions, 2
capers, ½ cup, salted variety, soaked and washed
white wine vinegar, about 2 tablespoons or for a milder taste use 1 tablespoon of white wine and one of vinegar
extra virgin olive oil, about 2 tablespoons
salt, black pepper or red chilli flakes (as preferred by the relatives in Ragusa),
celery heart, 2 or 3 of the pale green stalks and young leaves, chopped finely
green olives, ½ cup, pitted, chopped
bay leaves, 4
Soften the onion and celery in about half of the extra virgin oil, and cook until the onion is golden, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the fish, olives, capers, seasoning and bay leaves and sear the fish. The pieces of fish only need to be turned once.
Add the vinegar and allow the vinegar to evaporate and flavour the dish.
Remove the fish from the pan if you think that it will overcook and continue to evaporate.
Optional: Decorate (and flavour) with mint just before serving.
You can tell I am in South Australia by some of the photos of the fabulous varieties of fish I am able to purchase in Adelaide when I visit.
Time and time again I get asked about what I recommend as must-try dishes when in in Sicily.
You may be familiar with the websites for Great British Chefs (leading source of professional chef recipes in the UK) and their second sister website – Great Italian Chefs – dedicated to celebrating the wonderful food culture, traditions and innovations of Italy’s greatest chefs.
As their website informs us:
The Italians themselves are fiercely passionate about their culinary heritage, and with good reason – a large number of the world’s best dishes come from the cities, fields and shores of this deeply cultural, historic country.
Today, Sicily is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations, and it’s the food that keeps people coming back year after year.
From Great Italian Chefs comes 10 must-try dishes when you’re in Sicily(29 September 2017).
There are really 11 dishes listed altogether as it is assumed that you already know about Arancini.
The Sicilian specialties are:
Raw red prawns
Busiate al pesto trapanese
Pasta con le sarde
Pasta alla norma
Cous cous di pesce
Involtini di pesce spada
You will find almost all of the recipes for these dishes in my blog and I have added links and some photos to the recipes in this post below. Some of the photos are from my first book Sicilian Seafood Cooking. I cooked the food, the food stylist was Fiona Rigg, Graeme Gillies was the food photographer.
Although I have no recipes on my blog for Fritto misto, Raw red prawns and Involtini di pesce spada, I have explained each of these these Sicilian specialties and where appropriate I have links to similar recipes on my blog.
Many of you may be familiar with Fritto misto (a mixed dish of mixed fried things: fritto = fried, misto = mixed) and know that it can apply to vegetables, fish or meat. These are cut into manageable size, are dusted in flour, deep fried and served plainly with just cut lemon.
The Fritto misto I knew as a child was what we ordered in restaurants and was the one that originated from Turin (Piedmont) and Milan (Lombardy). It was a mixture of meats and offal and I particularly liked the brains. Fritto misto was originally peasant food, the family slaughtered an animal for eating (usually veal) and the organs such as sweetbreads, kidneys, brains and bits of meat became the Fritto misto – it was a way to eat the whole animal and it was eaten as close to the slaughter and fresh as possible. Rather than having been dipped in flour the various morsels were crumbed. Seasonal crumbed vegetables were also often included – mostly eggplant and zucchini in the warm months, cauliflower and artichokes in the cooler season.
If we wanted to eat a fish variety of Fritto misto we would order a Fritto Misto di Mare/or Di Pesce (from the sea or of fish).
Sicily is an island and Sicilians eat a lot of fish and the Fritto misto you eat in Sicily is the fish variety – fresh fish is fundamental. In the Sicilian Fritto misto you will also find Nunnata (neonata (Italian) – neonate),
Sicilians are very fond of Nunnata – the Sicilian term used to call the minute newborn fish of different species including fish, octopi and crabs; each is almost transparent and so soft that they are eaten whole.
For Sicilians Nunnata is a delicacy but these very small fish are an important link in the marine biological food chain, and that wild and indiscriminate fishing endangers the survival of some fish species.
Many Sicilian fishers and vendors justify selling juvenile fish on the grounds that they are ‘bycatch’ (taken while fishing for other species). They argue that the fish are already dead or injured, so there is no point in throwing them back. It seems that for Sicilians, ‘sustainability’ means that all fish are fair game as long as they can catch their quota. However, it is important to acknowledge that the traditional fishing for juveniles is an important activity for small-scale fishers. It only takes place for 60 consecutive days during the winter and therefore has a high socio-economic impact at local level. When in Sicily I refuse to eat this and I only encountered one restaurant in Sciacca that refused to present it to patrons who specifically asked for it.
Fritto misto di mare or Fritto misto di pesce
For the recipe of mixed fried fish, select a variety of fish: squid and prawns, sardines/anchovies, some fleshy white fish, whitebait too. Carefully clean the prawns leaving the head attached and removing the internal alimentary canal; clean the squid and cut into rings or strips and gut the sardines /anchovies and leave the head attached if you can.
Wipe the fish dry and dip the fish a little at a time into the flour and salt, sieve or shake to remove the excess flour and fry in very hot oil until golden and crispy. I use extra virgin oil for everything. Place on paper to drain and serve hot with lemon wedges and perhaps some more salt.
Raw red prawns
Gambero Rosso, (Aristaeomorpha foliacea) is a Sicilian red prawn.These prawns are blood-red and are generally wild caught in the Mediterranean.
All very fresh seafood can be eaten raw and is loved by Sicilians, usually served with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Most times the seafood is marinaded in these even if it is for a short time – the lemon juice “cooks” the fish.
Pesto trapanese (from Tapani in Western Sicily) is also called Matarocco. Busiate is the type of pasta traditionally made by coiling a strip of pasta cut diagonally around a thin rod (like a knitting needle).
I am saddened and distressed to say that recipes for Cous Cous di pesce and Cannoli have disappeared from my blog and I can only assume that because I have transferred my blog several times to new sites these posts have been lost in the process. I will add these recipes at a later date.
This Sicilian caponata is certainly different to the Christmas fare we are used to in Australia, but it makes a perfect antipasto or salad as an accompaniment to meat or fish .
Eggplants and peppers are summer vegetables and not in season in winter for Christmas, so this caponata is made with celery hearts, traditionally boiled first before being sautéed. In some parts of Sicily green, leafy winter vegetables (for example chicory, spinach, endives) are also used with the celery.
I do not pre-cook the celery; I prefer to slice it very finely and just sauté it till it is slightly softened.
It is a very unusual caponata with a combination of textures and flavours –sweet, salty, sour… soft and crunchy. This recipe is one of the many caponate in my first book Sicilian Seafood Cooking.
Sultanas or currants are both good to use. Muscatels and raisins are OK as well, but their size may not be as visually pleasing.
Sometimes I toast the almonds, sometimes I do not. I made this caponata in a friend’s kitchen and on this occasion I used whole almonds rather than chopped ( the was no food processor/ kitchen wizz). On other occasions I have used pine nuts.
I have paired this with meat and fish but I really like to eat it on by it self… especially at the start of a meal.
almonds, 1 cup, blanched, toasted and chopped
celery, 1 large, but remove the outer leaves and only use the centre, pale green stalks and some of the fine leaves
onion 1, large, chopped
sultanas or currants, ¾ cup, sun-ripened
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup , stoned, chopped
white vinegar, ½ glass
sugar, 3 tablespoons
extra virgin olive oil, ½ cup
salt and freshly ground pepper
These can be sprinkled on top when the caponata is ready to serve: Coarse Toasted Breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons, made from good quality 1-2 day old bread and then toasted in a frypan with hot oil.
Slice the celery finely and chop the leaves.
Sauté the celery with the onion in a deep frypan until it has softened, add salt and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add the olives, sultanas and capers and cook for another 2 minutes.
Empty the cooked ingredients into a bowl.
Agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce): To the frypan already coated with caramelised flavours, add the sugar and heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Add the vegetables to the sauce and some of the almonds, reserving some for decoration if you are not going to use the toasted breadcrumbs.
Leave the caponata in the fridge, at least overnight. Serve at Room temperature. Top with the rest of the almonds or breadcrumbs when ready to serve.
Caponata has evolved over the ages to become the dish, which personifies Sicilian cuisine and is a popular dish during festivities ( perfect for Christmas). As you’d expect, there are many regional variations and enrichments of what must have been a very humble dish, as well as the personal, innovative touches from the chefs of ancient, Sicilian aristocracy (called monzu, a corruption of the French word monseur).
In Sicilian cooking the melanzana (eggplant) is said to be the queen of vegetables, second only to the tomato and the principal ingredient in caponata is the eggplant.
If you eat caponata at my house you are likely to eat the version of caponata as made in Catania and it will include peppers as well as eggplant. This is because my mother was born in Catania and this is the caponata I grew up eating. The caponata which is common around Palermo has no peppers.
I prefer to keep my caponata di melanzane simple, but again, variations in the amounts of ingredients are endless. Some versions add garlic, some have oregano, several recipes include anchovies, others add sultanas and/or pine nuts or toasted almonds. These are all acceptable and authentic variations.
In keeping with the tradition of what is customary in Palermo, just before serving add a sprinkling of coarse breadcrumbs (toasted in a fry pan in a little hot extra virgin olive oil) or almonds — blanched, toasted and chopped.
For me, Peter Robb in his book Midnight in Sicily captures the essence of a Sicilian caponata, when he describes how very different the caponata he was savouring in Palermo was to the caponata he had been eating in Naples.
I realised caponata in Palermo was something very different. It was the colour that struck me first. The colour of darkness. A heap of cubes of that unmistakably luminescent dark, dark purply-reddish goldy richness, glimmerings from a baroque canvas, that comes from eggplant, black olives, tomato and olive oil densely cooked together, long and gently. The colour of southern Italian cooking. Caponata was one of the world’s great sweet and sour dishes, sweet, sour and savoury.
The eggplant was the heart of caponata. The celery hearts were the most striking component: essential and surprising. Pieces of each were fried separately in olive oil until they were a fine golden colour and then added to a sauce made by cooking tomato, sugar and vinegar with a golden chopped onion in oil and adding Sicilian olives, capers …….
As Robb discovered: eggplant is the purple heart of Sicilian caponata – and it is the principal ingredient.
There are a variety of caponate (plural of caponata) and the variations and inclusions of different ingredients in the basic caponata recipe are many.
Some traditional recipes use tomato paste rather than chopped tomatoes, some add garlic, others include chocolate (or cocoa). Many recipes contain nuts – almonds or pine nuts or pistachio, fresh in some, in others they are toasted. In a few recipes the caponata is sprinkled with breadcrumbs and sometimes the breadcrumbs have been browned in oil beforehand. Frequently herbs are added – sometimes basil, at other times oregano or mint. Certain recipes also include raisins or currants and some fresh pears. Several include fish, singly or in combination and include canned tuna, prawns, octopus, salted anchovies and bottarga (tuna roe).
You will need a deep, large fry pan. If you use a non-stick frypan you may not need as much oil, but the surface will not be as conducive to allowing the residue juices to form and caramelise as in a regular pan. (After food has been sautéed, the juices caramelise – in culinary terms this is known as fond. Non-stick pans do not produce as much fond).
Although the vegetables are fried separately, they are all incorporated in the same pan at the end. When making large quantities I sometimes use a wok.
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup (depending how much the vegetables will absorb)
eggplants, 3-4 large, dark skinned variety
onion 1, large, chopped
red tomatoes, 2 medium size, peeled and chopped or 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a little water or some canned tomatoes
capers, ½ cup, salted or in brine
green olives, ¾ cup, stoned, chopped
celery, 2-3 tender stalks and the pale green leaves (both from the centre of the celery)
white, wine vinegar, ½ cup
sugar, 2 tablespoons
salt and freshly ground pepper
Cut the eggplant into cubes (approx 30mm) – do not peel. Place the cubes into abundant water with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Leave for about 30 minutes – this will keep the flesh white and remove any bitter juices while you prepare the other ingredients. Although it is not always necessary to do this, the eggplant is said to absorb less oil if soaked previously.
Prepare the capers – if they are the salted variety, ensure that they have been rinsed thoroughly and then soaked for about 30 minutes before use, and then rinsed again.
Chop the onion.
Slice the celery into very fine slices and chop the green leaves.
Peel, and coarsely chop the tomatoes (or use tomato paste or canned tomatoes).
Drain the eggplants and squeeze them to remove as much water as possible – I use a clean tea towel.
Heat a large frypan over medium heat with ½ cup of the extra virgin olive oil.
Add eggplant cubes and sauté until soft and golden (about 10-12 minutes). Place the drained eggplants into a large bowl and set aside (all of the vegetables will be added to this same bowl).
Drain the oil from the eggplants back into the same frypan and re-use this oil to fry the next ingredients.
Add the celery and a little salt gently for 5-7 minutes, so that it retains some of its crispness (in more traditional recipes, the celery is always boiled until soft before being sautéed).
Remove the celery from the pan and add it to the eggplants.
Sauté the onion having added a little more oil to the frypan. Add a little salt and cook until translucent.
Add the tomatoes or the tomato paste (with a little water) to the onions, and allow their juice to evaporate.
Add the capers and olives. Allow these ingredients to cook gently for 1- 2 minutes.
Empty the contents of the frypan into the other cooked vegetables.
For the agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour sauce):
Add the sugar to the frypan (already coated with the caramelised flavours from the vegetables). Heat it very gently until it begins to melt and bubble. Add the vinegar and allow it to evaporate.
Incorporate the cooked vegetables into the frypan with the agro dolce sauce.
Add ground pepper, check for salt and add more if necessary.
Gently toss in all of the cooked ingredients over low heat for 2-3 minutes to blend the flavours.
Remove the caponata from the pan and cool before placing it into one or more containers. Store in the fridge till ready to use and remove it from the fridge about an hour before eating– it will keep well in the fridge for up to one week.
When ready to eat, sprinkle with either toasted almonds or toasted breadcrumbs. I like to add fresh basil or mint leaves.
CAPONATA DI MELANZANE CON CIOCCOLATA (Caponata with chocolate)
In Sicilian cuisine there are a number of recipes, which include chocolate to enrich the flavour of a dish (see HARE or RABBIT COOKED IN CHOCOLATE) and chocolate in eggplant caponata is a common variation in certain parts of Sicily.
In the early 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors discovered a variety of unknown foods in the New World.Among these was xocolatl, (chocolate) obtained from ground cacao seeds. Spanish nobility arrived in Sicily during the 15th and 16th centuries and they brought their exotic ingredients from the New World to the island. This was also an ostentatious period of splendour and opulence for the clergy and the Sicilian aristocracy.
Although many traditional Sicilian dishes are said to be Spanish legacies, it is more accurate to say that some Sicilian cuisine incorporated both Sicilian and Spanish traditions.
Follow the recipe for eggplant caponata above and add cocoa or good quality, dark chocolate.
Cocoa: The majority of the recipes for caponata enriched with chocolate suggest the use of cocoa powder (about 2 tablespoons of cocoa to 2 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in a little water to form a thick paste). Add this mixture to the pan after you have made the agro dolce sauce and before you add the cooked vegetables.
Dark Chocolate: My most favoured alternative is to use 50g of dark, extra fine chocolate (organic, high cocoa content – 70%). Add the chocolate pieces into the agro dolce sauce and stir it gently as it melts, and then I add the cooked vegetables. This results into a much smoother and more luscious caponata.
In a modern Sicilian restaurant with a young chef, I was presented with an eggplant caponata where the chocolate was grated on top, much like grated cheese on pasta.
In my first book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking there is whole chapter devoted to caponata. I have also written other posts with recipes on the blog :
You may have noticed that use of nettles in culinary dishes are gaining popularity. Some Melbourne restaurants have included nettles and there were bunches for sale at the Queen Victoria Market a couple of weeks ago (Il Fruttivendolo – Gus and Carmel’s stall). Gus and Carmel have not been able to procure any nettles for the last couple of weeks so maybe demand by restaurants has increased.
Nettles (ortiche in Italian) are part of the assortment of wild greens – considered unwanted weeds by many and appreciated edible plants by others. Wild greens in Italian are referred to as piante selvatiche (wild plants) or a term that I find very amusing: erbe spontanee (spontaneous herbs).
Nettles are high in nutrients such iron, magnesium and nitrogen and can be eaten in many recipes – I ate them not so very long ago incorporated in the gnocchi dough in a trattoria in Cividale del Fruili, a lovely little town in the Province of Udine, part of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northern Italy.
Once back in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago I enjoyed them on several occasions as a sauce for gnocchi at Osteria Ilaria and at Tipo 00 nettles have been part of a risotto since it opened– both excellent eateries are owned by the same team.
Matt Wilkinson, of Brunswick’s Pope Joan has also been a fan of nettles for a long time.
Nettles are easily found anywhere where weeds can grow. If you have ever touched nettles you would know that they sting, cause redness and itching so use rubber gloves when you harvest them. Nettles need to be cooked before eating and because they reduce significantly when cooked, you will need a large amount of them.
Remove the stems and choose the best leaves – the tender young leaves from the tips are best; wash and drain them as you do with any other green vegetable. Blanch a few handfuls of the leaves in a pot of boiling water for minute or so – this softens them and removes the sting and you will end up with a dark green soft mass which you may choose to puree even further to gain a smooth, soft paste. Drain and use them – once cooled they can be included in a gnocchi or pasta dough or in a sauce to dress the pasta or gnocchi. Incorporate them as part a soup – great with cannellini or chickpeas. Mix them with eggs and a little grated cheese to make a frittata. For a risotto either use the already softened nettles or sauté the leaves with whatever ingredients you are using for the risotto and then add the rice and broth.
On my recent travels to Northern Italy I ate gnocchi with nettles in a trattoria in Cividale dei Fruili. The cheese used to top the gnocchi is smoked ricotta.
You will find many recipes for making potato gnocchi and I generally use about 500 grams of boiled potatoes, 150 grams of softened/ blanched cold nettles, 1 egg, 150 grams of flour.
You could also try gnocchi made with bread.
Equal amounts of nettles and bread, i.e.
300 g of nettles, blanched and drained
300 g of good quality white bread (crusts removed and preferably 1-2 days old)
milk to soften the bread
1 large egg
seasoning – salt, pepper, grated nutmeg
about 2 – 4 tablespoons plain flour to bind the mixture (try to use as little as possible) and
grated parmesan can also replace some of the quantities of the flour
N.B. Spinach instead of nettles can be used in the recipe.
Dampen the bread with some milk and squeeze any moisture from out before using. Mix the cooled nettles with the bread in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, add the egg and knead well. Add the flour gradually and make small balls with the dough. Flatten them slightly with a fork. Boil in salted water until they float to the top.
A simple sauce can be some lightly browned melted butter with sage leaves and a good sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
Sea urchins and they are now available (July) at the Queen Victoria Market at George The Fish Monger.
They are called ricci in Italy (di mare means from the sea) and are considered a culinary delicacy – the two most common ways to eat them are very fresh and raw with a squeeze of lemon juice (like oysters) or in a dressing for pasta. The roe (the edible part) is never cooked directly – it is much too delicate in flavor and consistency. In the pasta dish it is the hot, cooked pasta that warms (and ‘cooks’) the roe – flip and toss the roe over and over until all of the ingredients of the pasta sauce are evenly distributed.