The local farmer’s market is always full of pleasant surprises, but I think early Springtime, when everyone wants something — anything — fresh and local to eat, is when I find the most unusual ingredients offered up. It’s funny, because sometimes those running the stands are almost apologetic about their wares. I always try and make a point to go and find something new on these occasions, searching for signs advertising strange, exotic (but somehow local?) ingredients. This week, I came across a bag of incredibly fresh nettles, picked just that morning. See how pretty they are?
Nettles don’t exactly sound appetizing. When they get older, they remind you not to go near them if you happen to brush their skin. As I found, the little ones still manage to do the same; pulling them out of their careful wrapping sent little tingles of pain across my fingers, like a thousand tiny splinters. I suppose I’ve done worse when cooking before (and after the aloe vera leaf we brought back with us from the store today, these little prickles were child’s play). I had no idea what to do with them. The girl at the stand just said they tasted incredibly green, like springtime, and so I figured I’d just do something simple. A little lemon, and crushed coriander would make for a subtle and delicious flavor, coupled with paprika, garlic, shallots, and olive oil. Add a bit of pasta, and you have the kind of meal you should be eating after cracking open an amazing triple creme brie in the afternoon, after planting still more vegetables in the garden.
The pairing was quite good, in fact, and as for the nettles? They cook down into fresh, slightly firm, soft greens, which go nicely with the tang and slightly spicy aftertaste of the lemon and coriander pairing. The girl who sold them to me? She was right on. They taste of spring, just around the corner. And for the skeptics out there, James says they’re better than Brussels sprouts.
- A few handfuls of nettles, washed and dried in a salad spinner. Be careful — they sting! You can use baby arugula if you can’t find nettles; just add them to the pasta at the last minute instead of cooking them with the spices for 10 minutes or so.
- 1 t. whole coriander, crushed
- 1/2 t. hot paprika
- Juice + zest from 1 lemon.
- 2-3 T. flax seeds
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 c. white wine or vegetable broth (or meyer lemon vodka, which I had on hand)
- 1 t. salt
- pepper, to taste
- olive oil
- Enough pasta for 2 people; smaller shapes are probably better in this case
Place the pasta water over high heat. While you’re waiting for it to boil, heat a few glugs of oil in a heavy pan over medium high heat. Add the coriander, paprika, and salt, and cook, stirring, for a minute. Add the shallots; cook one or two minutes more (keep stirring!), and then throw in the garlic. Stir some more. After one or two more minutes, turn the heat down to medium low. Add the nettles, lemon zest, and wine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the nettles are completely wilted and taste soft. They should definitely have lost their prickly bite. Throw in the flax seeds, add pepper to taste, and turn the heat down as far as it’ll go.
Finish cooking your pasta (make sure to use lots of salt in the water; I don’t add cheese to this recipe, so the salt makes the dish taste amazing rather than bland). Toss pasta with the nettles, heat until the dish reaches the temperature of your choice (this should only take a minute), and serve immediately. I liked mine without adornment; James preferred ricotta salata with his.
If you want a more substantial meal, any of the following would be good additions (though maybe not all at once!): cannelloni beans, portobello mushrooms, almonds, a bit of grilled fish, or some spicy cooked sausage.