Sting Operation

Steamed Nettles

The first time I came across stinging nettles was in Woods Hole. Some Italian friends of ours, Fiamma and Rosalba, had a little plot at WHOI‘s community garden, and every year at about this time the nettles would come shooting up. Yes, the nettles that sting you when you’re on a walk in the woods are the same kind you can eat – and they’re delicious.

One time when Fiamma and Rosalba invited us over for dinner, we walked in to find Fiamma steaming nettles and sorrel in a big pot. She explained how heat deactivates nettles’ stinging hairs, but insisted that one can actually eat nettles raw, as long as the outside of the leaf is folded over the inside, where the stinging parts are. (A little “research” reveals that the chemical sting can be disabled not only by cooking, but also by chopping, so she was right; note to self: must try raw nettle pesto.) I asked her what the nettles were for.

“We’re just making pasta,” said Fiamma, and although I knew she meant homemade, I couldn’t have predicted how satisfying it would be to sit outdoors at that rickety metal table, cold in the cool April air but too happy to complain, rolling and cutting and forming smooth, flat semolina dough over the rich green nettle and sorrel filling to make agnolotti, ravioli, or whatever shape we felt inspired to try. I’d made pasta many times before, but it was always a project, never relaxed into a task as quotidien as it was there, out on their porch.

When Melissa made handkerchief pasta with ricotta and nettle sauce at the Beard House last week (with seared scallops, YUM), I thought of Fiamma and Rosalba, and was so excited to find big bags of stinging nettles packed into pretty baskets at the Ballard market. I bought a half-pound bag, and started experimenting with the nettles and the patch of sorrel I’ve discovered in our back yard.

I wanted a pasta dish bursting with green color and flavor, and I got it: my husband called it The Green Monster. Inspired by the photo of Heidi’s recipe for Broken Lasagna with Walnut Pesto, I made it with broken lasagna noodles, but I’m not sure I’d do it the same way the next time. I didn’t feel like the flat slabs of pasta were right for holding the sauce; I’d prefer something with more texture, like rotini or cavatappi.

Pasta with Nettles, Sorrel, and Lemon

Pasta with Nettles, Sorrel, and Lemon
Recipe 91 of 365

Stinging nettles taste a little like spinach. Since cleaning them without stinging yourself presents a challenge, I cook them by boiling them in a big pot of water, stirring frequently when I first put them in and hoping that whatever dirt isn’t meant to end up in my body sinks to the bottom of the pot. Look for nettles at farmer’s markets and gourmet food stores in the spring.

This is not your typical pasta dish; it’s light, more like a hot pasta salad, with bright, herby flavors. If you want something a little more substantial, by all means, add butter or cream. Goat cheese or feta would also work well here.

TIME: 40 minutes
MAKES: 2 to 4 servings

1/4 pound fresh stinging nettles
1/2 pound (8 ounces) pasta, such as broken lasagna noodles, cavatappi, or rotini
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 pound fresh ricotta cheese, plus some for garnishing the pasta
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon each chopped fresh mint, parsley, and chives (or some combination)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small handful fresh sorrel leaves, torn into bite-sized pieces and washed
1/2 cup toasted walnuts

Bring two large pots of salted water to a boil, one for the nettles and one for the pasta.

When the water boils in one of the pots, carefully add the nettles, stirring as you add them to rid them of any unwanted particles, and cook for 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a colander (so that any dirt stays in the pot), and let them drain for a few minutes over the sink.

Add the pasta to the pot of clean water, and cook according to package directions, until al dente.

Meanwhile, gently press most of the water out of the hot nettles, transfer them to a food processor, and puree. Add the olive oil, and process until completely smooth. Add the ricotta, lemon zest and juice, and herbs, and process briefly, just so the ingredients are blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Scoop out about a cup of the pasta-cooking water and set it aside. Drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and toss it with the nettle-ricotta mixture and the fresh sorrel, adding the reserved pasta water to loosen the sauce, if necessary. Stir in the walnuts, and serve immediately, topped with the extra ricotta.

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Filed under farmer's market, Italian, kitchen adventure, Pasta, recipe, vegetables

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