Welcome to a new blog series here at the Country Skills Blog: in the ‘Fallback Pantry’ I plan to build a collection of recipes to help make the best of what’s in the kitchen and garden. At the time of writing, at least a quarter of the world’s population is under some sort of ‘lockdown’ restriction resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, making the sorts of recipes and techniques the blog has always focused on more valuable and relevant than ever.
Whatever our circumstances, a slow, thoughtful look at the resources at our disposal will hopefully yield options to help us eat well and make the best of what we have available.
With regular trips to the shops on hold for most of us, access to fresh greens can be a particular challenge. Thank goodness it’s stinging nettle season! Nettles are a great wild food, really nutritious and full of good things, widely found in gardens and other green spaces, and can be used very much like spinach. This recipe for home-made gnocchi really makes the best of them, I think – and they’re fun to make, so you can keep the kids entertained for several hours, too!
An important note about wild food –
When picking wild plants to eat, it’s really important that you’re completely confident that you know what it is you’re picking. There are one or two seriously poisonous wild plants out there, and eating the wrong one could kill you. That said, stinging nettles are some of the easiest wild plants to identify – most British children will have mastered this skill by the age of five or six (though an adult friend of mine admitted to me recently that she wasn’t that confident she could!). Invest in a well-illustrated field guide and learn how to use it, take someone with you who knows what they’re doing, and if you’re ever in the slightest doubt, don’t take a risk! Remember that in many countries there are rules about what you can and can’t pick, pull, or harvest on land that doesn’t belong to you, so please stay on the right side of the law, and check with the landowner first to be sure.
100g stinging nettle tops
One free-range egg
Around 100g Type-OO white flour (you can substitute strong white bread flour (better), or even plain flour will do in a pinch. Not self-raising, please!)
Semolina (not essential – you can use more of your flour for shaping but will sacrifice a bit of texture)
50g unsalted butter
3-4 sprigs of fresh sage
2 cloves of garlic
Salt & pepper
Optional extra: dry-cured streaky bacon lardons
Serving alternative: any other sauce you fancy – all sorts of pesto-type sauces will work well here, so the only limit is your imagination.
Pick nettles carefully – I wear washing up gloves – selecting the top two or three pairs of leaves only. Nettles are best early in the year, they can get rather tough and coarse flavoured later on. Actually, I tend to pull up a whole batch of nettles – I’m usually weeding – and then pick through them for the nettle tops afterwards. Remove the leaves from the stems, wash them thoroughly, and dry in a salad spinner (keeping your gloves on all the while!). 100g is roughly the amount you get in one of those prepared salad bags.
Start by boiling your potatoes, skins on, in a pan of briskly boiling water.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan with a well-fitting lid, put a splash of water and a little knob of butter, add all the nettle leaves, cover, and steam until the leaves start to soften and go a slightly darker shade of green. You can take your gloves off now, as the sting will have been disarmed.
Squeeze all the water out of your nettle leaves, by hand in a tea towel, or in a sieve. Then chop the steamed nettles up as well as possible.
Keep an eye on your potatoes. When they’re cooked, drain them into a colander and once they’re cool enough to handle, you can peel their skins off really easily.
Your chopped nettles should now be essentially cold. In a food processor (or pestle and mortar) combine the nettles with the egg and reduce to a reasonably fine pulp.
Mash your potatoes, ideally using a potato ricer if you have one.
Combine the mashed potato with the egg & nettle paste, and mix well.
Now, start adding the flour until it makes a soft but manageable dough. This will probably be about 100g but will vary depending on how much moisture was left in your nettles & potato, and how large your egg was.
Once you have a workable dough (it will still be a bit sticky) dust your counter with semolina, take a handful of dough, and roll it into a sausage about ¾” in diameter. Then cut the sausage into individual gnocchi about ½” thick and place – spaced apart – on a semolina-dusted baking sheet or chopping board. Carry on until you have used up all the dough.
Allow your gnocchi to rest for about 30 minutes and then press gently with the tines of a fork to get the traditional ridges, which help sauces cling to the gnocchi.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a brisk rolling boil.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, melt the butter. Chop the garlic finely, add to the butter, and cook very gently until golden.
While the garlic is cooking, add the gnocchi to the boiling water. They will sink initially, and are done when they float to the surface.
Finely slice the fresh sage leaves. When the gnocchi are cooked, add the sage leaves to the butter and garlic, stir quickly, and then transfer the gnocchi into the garlic and sage butter in the frying pan using a slotted spoon.
Mix well to coat the gnocchi evenly with the herb butter, and serve, topped generously with freshly grated Parmesan and a good pinch of ground black pepper.
Variation – fry off some good smoked streaky bacon lardons until golden and crispy, before you start cooking the gnocchi, and add these to the gnocchi and sauce at the end.
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