Tag Archives: Wild Greens

NETTLES (Ortiche), Culinary uses and gnocchi

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Bread gnocchi

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.

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A simple sauce can be some lightly browned melted butter with sage leaves and a good sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

Walnuts, garlic, seasoning, olive oil and butter can be blended till smooth and will make a great dressing. Or try the classic Genovese walnut pesto made with marjoram. See: PESTO DI NOCI (Walnut pesto/ sauce for pasta)

In my book, Sicilian Seafood Cooking I have written about wild greens in Sicily.

Posts about Sicilian wild greens on my blog are:

EDIBLE WEEDS: Orecchiette e Broccoletti Selvatici (and cime di rape)

SICILIAN EDIBLE WEEDS and Greek VLITA

Use the search button to find recipes for other foraged vegetables, i.e. Wild Fennel, Chicory, Wild Asparagus, Malabar spinach, Purslane, Mushrooms.

 

 

TORTA DI VERDURA (A vegetable flan or pie)

So what else can you do with all these wonderful winter leafy greens?

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In Italian a torta is a cake, but it can also be a savoury type, for example as in this case a TORTA DI VERDURA (A vegetable flan or pie). Verdura means vegetable and in this case green, leafy vegetables.

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There are different types of pastry that can be used, but in this case I chose one made with extra virgin olive oil. It is easy to make and I have found that it also generally keeps better than the other pastry and makes a more solid casing for the verdure. Interestingly in the rural areas around Ragusa (Sicily) sugar is often added to pastry and on this occasion I have done so.

I like to use a variety of different green leafy vegetables for the filling. Selected from any combination of the following: chicory, escarole/endive, chopped tender green leaves of celery and fennel (in small quantities) spinach, broccoli, cime di rape and cavolo nero (in the North of Italy). Kale (not Italian) is also suitable and occasionally I have also used a little cabbage.

If I am including endives or chicory, I use the outside leaves and reserve the more tender, lighter coloured leaves in the centre for green salads. Bitter tasting chicory and endive are particularly appreciated – bitter vegetables are considered particularly beneficial for the liver.

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The TORTA DI VERDURA is best served at room temperature and usually I bake it on the same day if I am presenting the torta at home. I usually stagger the preparations by cooking the verdura the previous day – often I will have it as a contorno (a vegetable side dish) the night before and save some for the pie. I either make the pastry the night before or at least two hours before the baking (this pastry likes to rest).

Breadcrumbs are sprinkled on top of the pastry before the filling is added. This will help to absorb juices from the vegetables and will assist to prevent the pastry from becoming soggy. My breadcrumbs are made from 1-3 day old, with the crusts removed. I use bread like a sourdough or made with pasta dura flour (hard wheat) and which has had time to rise naturally.

In the north of Italy, eggs are usually included to bind the mixture rather than the breadcrumbs; I add 2 beaten eggs well as the bread expecially if I am going to leave the cooked torta for more than 2 hours before I eat it.

INGREDIENTS
Vegetables: you should have masses of raw leaves – the equivalent to 3 large bunches of green leafy vegetables (se above for variety) which should give a mixture of about 6-8 cups of cooked, well drained and chopped, mixed greens.
½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil,
onions, 2 large chopped
salt to taste
chillies 2 dried or fresh (left whole and optional)
garlic, 6 cloves, squashed,
¾ to 1 cup coarse breadcrumbs
2 eggs, lightly whipped with a fork
Variations
When you are ready to put the filling into the torta you could also add the following:
Anchovies and black olives, ½ cup of olives ¼ cup of anchovies, chopped,
Currants and toasted pine nuts (about ½ cup of each, to taste). When I use this option I do not use chillies and add a little nutmeg.
Cheese – Sharp cheese like pecorino or provolone (with chillies) or a mild cheese like ricotta or pecorino fresco (I do not add chillies).
PROCESSES
To clean the greens: remove any bruised or brown leaves and cut off the tough stem ends. Separate the bunches into leaves, wash and tear some of the bigger leaves into smaller pieces (so that they cook quicker and fit into the pan better).
Cook the leaves by either steaming them in the pan and only using a little water or by adding them to about 3 cups of salted boiling water (as is the traditional Italian method for cooking verdure.) Stir regularly and ensure that the vegetables do not stick to the bottom of the pan.
Cover and cook over medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes – they will get more cooking later. Once again, Italians would cook these for a longer period. Drain well (I leave them in a colander until ready to use).
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a large saucepan, add the whole chillies and the garlic and stir till the garlic has flavoured the oil. Remove and discard the garlic and chillies.
Add the onion and stir until softened.
Squeeze any remaining moisture from the greens before adding them to the pan, then taste for salt, adjust and toss them into the pan in the flavoured oil.
Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5-10 minutes.
Let cool and set aside.

PASTRY CRUST: Pasta Frolla Fatta Con Olio (Short pastry made with oil)

I like to make my own pastry, but you may prefer to use a commercial variety. I also enjoy using my fingers, however food processors work well.

In this recipe I have used standard cup measurements and approximate weight, but let your intuition be your judgement and vary the amounts as needed. Different flours will absorb differing amounts of liquid I have estimated the approximate amount of water which could be used. Pastry making is also influenced by the weather, use cold water, and rinse your hands to cool them under the cold-water tap, keep the pastry in a cool place when you allow it to rest.

The pastry should be compact and may not need any extra liquid, but if you feel that you will not be able to roll it out, add more oil or a little water. Some recipes use a combination of whole eggs and egg yolks, others add a little white wine or lemon juice for the extra moisture.

I like to bake the bottom of the pastry blind before I put in the filling: line the pastry with foil; add pastry weights (or dried beans or chick peas) on top. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and weights. (Optional – brush pastry with egg white to provide a better seal and bake for another 10 minutes).

The torta can also be covered entirely with pastry, rather than with strips as I have done on this occasion.

INGREDIENTS
plain flour, approx 3 cups
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup water cold
2-3 egg yolks
extra virgin olive oil, to brush the top of the pastry
PROCESSES
Combine in a large bowl or on a slab with the flour, sugar and salt.
Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil and lightly rub quickly with your fingers until the mixture is crumbly.
Make a well in the centre, work in some of the water, adding more water as needed, until the mixture begins to hold together and form soft dough. Knead for 2-3 minutes until the pastry feels elastic
Shape into a ball, wrap it in plastic film and let it rest in a cool place for at least 60 minutes before rolling out.
To assemble the torta:
Preheat the oven to 190.C.
Butter a deep spring- form pan (mine is 22.5 cm round and 6.0 cm deep) with extra virgin olive oil.
Divide the pasty into 2 parts; roll out one slightly larger than the other to line the bottom and the sides of the dish. Make the edge about 1cm higher than the edge of the tin. (About 07.5 cm). Do not b concerned if you find this dough to have become a little more stiff and resistant to stretching.
Fit the dough into the prepared well buttered pan, pressing it against the sides and letting the excess dough hang over the edge (about 3cm).
Prick the pastry and place it in the fridge until the filling is ready.
Roll out the remaining dough and cut the pastry into strips.– these will form the lattice.
Prepare the filling:
Drain and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Add eggs and any of the variations (optional).
Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over pastry in the pan.
Cover the filling with strips of pastry: start with the longest strips and lay in a cross shape across the centre of the pie (90 degree angles). Alternate horizontal and vertical strips until you have covered the cake with a lattice (or weave them in an over-and-under pattern).
Press the ends of the strips firmly to the lip of the pie and then fold in on itself.
Bake and cook until the top is golden and the pastry has detached itself from the sides of the tin. This may take about 45- 60 minutes
Allow to rest in the tin for 8 minutes on a wire rack before releasing it (or if you are clever and have used a conventional baking tin, inverting it).

Be Italian!

As an Italian  I am able to better appreciate the different flavours of the torta  if I eat it warm rather than hot.

Can you imagine this torta made with wild greens? The photo below was taken  just outside the gates to the Valley Of The Temples in Agrigento. There he is with his plastic bag…..

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EDIBLE WEEDS: Orecchiette e Broccoletti Selvatici (and cime di rape)

These plants are what I have always known as broccoletti selvatici. They are part of the group of edible plants called piante selvatiche (wild plants) or piante spontanee or erbe spontanee (spontaneous herbs) in Italian

For the photo, I collected two whole plants and the photos took place in my dining room (this is why they look so well groomed).

The weed, is classed as a brassica (family of vegetables which includes broccoli and cabbage) and if you can be patient enough to collect a sufficient quantity of wild broccoletti you will not be disappointed. As you see by the second photo, it is only the tender tips with young leaves that you pick – love and patience is required – take a bag, be prepared to walk and pick only the tender shoots from each plant.

They taste similar to cime di rape and tossed around in a pan with garlic, some chilli and olive oil, they make a vey tasty vegetable contorno (side dish) or a pasta sauce for orecchiette (pasta shaped like little ears and popular in Puglia). As a variation for that pasta sauce, a fresh, Italian pork sausage or some anchovies can be crumbled into the hot pan at the same time.

The pasta will need pecorino rather than parmigiano grated on top – not only because it is a southern Italian type dish, but also because a strong tasting sauce requires a strong cheese.

I discovered that what I have always known as cime di rape have local names in some regions of Italy. In Lazio they’re broccoletti. in Campania  they’re named friarielli, and in Toscana, rapini.  You may therefore not be surprised that what I call broccoletti selvatici are known by different  local names in the different regions of Italy. For example in Sicily which is a small island, some Sicilians may call them lazzane (a similar wild green in Sicily) and other Sicilians from a different part of Sicily may refer to them as cavoliceddi.

Like all vegetables, these wild broccoletti are seasonal and you will need to wait till the yellow flower appears before you pick them, but not too many yellow flowers, because this means that the plant is going to seed. If this is the case, and the plant will be spindly – its energy would have gone into seed production, and in fact, if you look at the photo, this is already beginning to happen.

Most of the world’s other cultures harvested (and some still harvest) from the wild: dandelions, wild chicories, nettles, amaranth, purslane and wild fennel may be the most recognised.

Other cultures living in Australia also collect wild greens, for example Greeks call them horta and I have written about vlita – a summer weed, in a previous post. Indigenous Australians had their favourites and some early pioneers ate wild greens, such as Warrigal greens and pigweed.

INGREDIENTS
orecchiette 500 g
wild greens or cime di rape, 500-700g
garlic cloves, to taste, chopped
chillies, to taste, chopped
anchovy fillets 3-4 chopped finely or 1-2 pork Italian sausages
extra virgin olive oil, ½- ¾ cup
white wine, a splash
pecorino for grating
PROCESSES
Wash the greens.
Heat some olive oil, add the garlic, chillies and the anchovies (or broken up sausage).
Add the vegetables sauté for a few minutes until they begin to wilt.
Add white wine, cover and cook till soft.(Some cooks pre-cook the greens and then sauté them – this is not necessary if you are only cooking the young shoots).
Cook the orecchiette and dress them with the greens.
Present them at the table with grated cheese, preferably pecorino -this is the stronger tasting grating cheese and more alined with southern Italian tastes.
SEE:

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SICILIAN EDIBLE WEEDS and Greek VLITA

I have shopped at the Queen Victoria Market ever since I moved to Melbourne from Adelaide. I am always excited by new produce, whether it is new in season or because it is new to me. I saw the vlita at one of the stalls where I often buy my vegetables. I had never seen vlita before – sold as a very large bunch of a long, green leafy plant with its roots still attached. Greens leafy vegetables in January are not very common.

One of the stall owners is a Calabrese (from the region of Calabria in Southern Italy) so I assumed – incorrectly – that it was a wild green, traditionally eaten like spinach in Italy and one I was not familiar with.

As I continued my way down the aisle, the vlita was attracting a lot of attention, but from people of Greek heritage, not Italians. I was stopped four times and they were surprised to hear that I knew the name and that I intended to sauté it in olive oil with garlic. A couple of them mentioned the word horta.

Further down the aisle, I was stopped by yet another woman who told me these plants were much appreciated in her country – India. She said that she was more familiar with a purple tinged variety. So home I went with my various bits of information, determined to discover more.

Yes, vlita is a common weed in Australia, but it is a wild green and one of many gathered and eaten in other parts of the world including Greece, Japan, India, South America and Taiwan. The taste is a little like a beet or spinach, only more grassy.

Vlita belongs to the amaranth family and this variety is known as palmer amarynth.

The amaranthus tricolor or red amaranth is sold more in commercial quantities than the green variety and is a very attractive plant; the leaves are much more colourful than palmer amaranth and it is sold in many stalls which sell Asian vegetables.

Alternative names are een choi (Chinese) phak khom suan (Thai) radên (Vietnamese) bayam (Indonesian).

In different parts of Greece, it is usually served as a cooked green salad. Horta are leafy green vegetables or wild greens and vlita is one of these.

Some varieties of the plant are grown as a grain crop for their seeds – which are very nutritious and can be made into flour – and amaranth flour is becoming increasingly well known as a nutritious alternative to wheat, especially in America.

The young leaves and tender stalks are picked and eaten before the plant flowers. They were sold to me in large bunches with the roots attached – picked this way, they last longer.

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Wild greens are called erbe spontanie in Italian (spontaneous herbs) and Sicilians are very fond of them. They forage for them and can also buy them at the market.
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Weeds, like vegetables are seasonal and collected by many people. Some of these wild greens are also sold in markets.
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Gira (or giriteddi), sparaceddi (wild asparagus) or amareddi are particularly popular.
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Last October–December), when I was in Sicily there were lassine, sanapu, agghiti (wild spinach), urrania (borage) and wild fennel.
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Wild greens/ Edible weeds can be cooked alone or mixed with other green leaf vegetables.
See TORTA DI VERDURA (A vegetable flan or pie).
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Italians cook greens, as the Greeks do: blanched/ whilted and drained, then seasoned with salt, olive oil and lemon juice and presented hot or cold as a cooked salad.

My favourite cooking method (common mostly in the South of Italy) is to precook the greens in boiling, salted water, drain them well and then sauté them in olive oil, chilli and garlic. They can be eaten hot or cold.

 

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