Nettles: soups, tarts, omelettes, frittatas, filo pastries, ferments, Sag Paneer– a versatile substitute whenever we think spinach, for we who can’t resist the idea of abundance in the byways and neglected patches all around us, in city, suburb and country. Through the years I’ve enjoyed nettles in my spring time cookery, the nutty perfume, the slightly exciting threat of sting. I would call it love.
So after making a Tourte de Blette (a sweet Chard tart) from my over-wintered Bed of Chard, I determined to explore uses for greens in desserts, and with the chard still growing profusely, and nettles abounding, my odyssey began. I’ve been seeking spinach recipes in which to substitute these.
First stop, as so often, was Jane Grigson— her Vegetable Book (1978) a deserving classic of international and historic reference really rooted in Britain but looking outward. She is impeccable, imaginative, fun. I love her writing. And so to find a “Sweet Spinach Tart” (Tarte D’Epinards Au Sucre/ Tarte Aux Epinards Provencale), I felt given a proper send off… She writes:
“Do not blench at the idea [of sweet spinach]. Take courage from the thought that [it] was a thoroughly English delicacy in the days before modern fruit storage–as one 18th-century writer remarked, ‘This is good among tarts in the winter for variety.’ Tudor recipes might include rosewater as a flavouring,but later we inclined more to the candied orange and lemon peel of this modern recipe from France.”
I gathered a big lot of nettle tips to weigh around 250grams/ 8 oz, as the recipe instructed. The instruction is to lightly steam them in the water that clings to the leaves after washing — really simple and obvious but bears emphasis, because then, if you immediately blanch (ie, cool down as quickly as possible in cold or ice water) you retain the beautiful green. Then I pureed them in the whizzer.
(This I think is a great technique for use with greens in general– especially the ones with chewier texture, like nettles. This kind of puree would be a great ingredient in many cakes/ breads/ pancakes / shakes etc. and pestos and spreads too.)
Grigson calls for:
250g (generous 8oz) spinach
125 ml (4 fl oz) each milk and single cream, or 250 ml milk
60g (2oz) sugar (you could use less but I reckon the point of this recipe is that it is sweet– so use honey maybe if you’re concerned about sugar?)
half vanilla pod [for a lovely custard-ness; but I used almond essence actually]
2 small egg yolks
30g (1 oz) flour ….
candied orange and lemon peel [I used a few spoonfuls of marmalade]
Her method involves ensuring all excess water is drained from the pureed spinach; slowly boiling the milk and cream, stirring the flour into the beaten yolks then adding them to the near-boil so everything thickens, then mixing in the spinach and placing everything into the pastry case (which I next time will bake blind). Grigson suggests serving hot or warm, with cream, which I did. But hours later the slivers that were cold were much much creamier and nicer, and the flavours settled.
I would call this Sweet Nettle Tart a success and gave lots of ideas for future desserts and sweet uses for nettles.
What made me look to Claudia Roden’s epic The Book of Jewish Food I don’t know, but it is compendiously trans-cultural and anthropological, and one of the great cookbooks ever for its breadth. It’s one to read even if not to use, but use it I find myself often doing…. In it are loads of spinach recipes for a keen substitution of nettles and chard– all now on my to-do list.
Shining most brightly: Torta di Mandorle e Spinaci — a green macaroonish “cake” with few ingredients that Roden discusses as an old Florentine curiosity, possibly with an earlier history in Provence– and perfect now as my Torta di Mandorle e Ortica, incarnated yesterday as a Passover Dessert. Basically, it’s pureed steamed nettles (supplemented by some chard), as above, powdered blanched almonds, sugar, and egg yolks mixed together and folded into, therefore raised and lightened by, hard whipped egg whites for loft. Then baked as a cake, but could easily be made into smaller biscuit shaped pieces, perhaps in little paper cases.
The longer they’ve sat, the more delicious they’ve become– really quite unusual yet hard to not want to keep tasting for that allusive.. that hard to say…. that je ne sais quoi.
Please stay tuned for more green spring sweets — I have a list of ideas I’m working through. As of this moment, I think the basic principle I’ve learned is: lightly steam and puree the greens then add them to whatever it is that appeals– a plain white cake, a pancake, a custard… with nettles the pureeing mitigates the stringy (ie hempy) texture…
And thanks to my friend Elli for the idea of the Galette aux Orties, an oat and nettle cake cooked in a pan and sounding especially delicious, even if in an ancient Celtic way somehow, in the French. Could be savoury, could be sweet. Ah, one could do a crepe, a buckwheat crepe! The ideas spill forth….
And thanks too to the amazing Sara Stanley for imagining a carrot-nettle cake (wouldn’t it be fun placing orange and green cakes as layers — or not) and the pairing of chard and date, and nettle and chestnut. Sara is an impressive and professional baker, teacher, forager, recipe-developer, foodie and lovely person– you can take courses with her…
OK, ta ta for now.