On nettle pasta & acquiring food skills
Making fresh pasta from scratch is something I’ve only recently acquired. Or to be really honest, it’s something that my husband Marco has acquired. Whenever there is bread making or pasta making involved, he’s my man. There’s just something about him and dough. Maybe it’s those big, slightly rough hands – they may not be delicate enough for, say, cake decorating, but he’s much more a fresh pasta and bread lover than he is a sweet tooth anyway.
As you may have read, when we met nearly seven years ago, he had never even been behind a stove before. Now he spends a significant chunk of his free time in the kitchen, watching over our seedlings or researching video recipes for a new dish to try out. It combines well with his job as a sommelier in some of Melbourne’s top restaurants, but this passion for and knowledge of food and wine wasn’t passed down to him. It simply grew, and around our house a passion for food gets nurtured.
It’s something that made me think about how we normally acquire cooking skills or a passion for cooking, as Marco seems to have done everything the other way around – not through the family, but by discovering it later and using the internet to learn more. This food for thought is partly what inspired me to write this article, What your Grandparents Knew, for The Locavore Edition, pondering whether our modern, urban lifestyle is killing off the food skills our grandparents once knew about, or is it actually reviving it?
I have always had a love for food and cooking from scratch, but growing up and spending most of my life in big cities, I never knew about foraging for food or even seasonal produce until I moved to Italy where, even in a city like Florence, the seasons pervade everything from the supermarket to the local trattoria or bakery. There is a time and place for every kind of produce. I soon learned that in Florence you only eat real mushrooms – not button ones, but freshly foraged ovoli (Caesar mushrooms) or porcini for one month of the year, if it’s a good season. The truffle season is even shorter. Tomatoes, fresh, ripe, and I mean properly ripe, are gorged on in the summer but only the tinned kind or passata used the rest of the year. Meanwhile, the long winter months are for endless cavolo nero, used in everything – don’t get me wrong, I love it, but after months of cold weather, I can barely look at it anymore. The markets tell you what month it is by just a glance at the sprawl of produce. And while at times I used to lament about the lack of variety, I rejoiced the fact that it was undeniably freshly harvested.
In the seven years that I lived in Florence, I acquired skills and knowledge about food that changed everything about the way that I thought about food, traditions, culture, cooking and eating habits. We now carry this love, appreciation and curiosity for real homegrown, homemade food with us wherever we go. And luckily in Melbourne there is no shortage of likeminded people with great resources. The amount of local markets, urban gardeners and urban beekeepers here constantly surprises and amazes me.
The internet is probably our first go-to source for knowing where to go and how to connect with local food in our area. An example? I came across this nettle thanks to twitter. One afternoon spent tweeting with some local chefs and food writers about foraging in Melbourne and I was offered two lots of nettle, in fact. Merricote restaurant chef, Rob Kabboord, gave me a newspaper-bound bouquet of stinging nettles after seeing my tweet asking for nettle locations around the city. And another, who goes by @Brock_Jay, who had nettle taking over his garden, suggested swapping a basket of nettles for a recipe. I tweeted him this recipe for nettle tortellini in brodo and, as promised, he dropped a basket full of stinging nettles around to the studio. How good is that? When would this have been able to happen to our grandparents?
With our bountiful nettle, I wanted to make something that could be stored easily so as not to waste it. We decided to make a green pasta, much like they do in Bologna for a traditional lasagne or tagliatelle verdi, only with nettles instead of the usual spinach. Once you have rolled it out in the desired shape, it freezes well so you have it on hand, ready to go when needed.
Pasta Verde all’Ortica
Stinging Nettle Pasta
For 2 people
- 200 gr flour
- 2 small eggs
- 60 gr of cooked, well-drained nettle
The nettles are first blanched to take away the sting so you can handle them, then squeezed of every last drop of water before being blended with the eggs to make a paste of sorts. This egg mixture is blended with the flour, just as you normally would with just eggs: create a pyramid of flour on a clean surface and then make a “well” in the middle. Pour in the egg mixture and with a fork or with your fingers, begin to incorporate the flour little by little into the egg mixture. The beauty of this age-old technique is that, depending on the size of your eggs and the moisture in the nettle, you may not need all of the flour – so you can stop mixing once you achieve a dough that is no longer sticky.
Knead for about 5-10 minutes or until you have a wonderful, elastic ball. It should bounce back if you push a finger into it. As with all doughs, you should let it rest for at least 30 minutes before using it.
You can roll it through a pasta rolling machine if you want to make tagliatelle verdi, green tagliatelle, which is wonderful with ragu as the Bolognese eat it, or as Artusi suggests, simply with butter and Parmesan cheese. Here, we’ve just rolled it out with a rolling pin, keeping it just slightly thicker, to make green lasagne sheets, ready for layering with Zia Nerina’s ragu, bechamel and Parmesan cheese.