Thursday, 13 September 2012


Stinging Nettle Soup and Nettle Purée with Bacon and Scallops

It is Spring here in New Zealand and Spring always compels me to put into practice my belief in eating local seasonal food. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can be more seasonal and more local than stinging nettles found in some park nearby. Most people might only recognize stinging nettles as pesky plants that will cause you some serious discomfort when touched. However not many know that stinging nettles are not only edible but sublime. In some countries, usually in countries where people have no other option but to eat seasonal foods, these are a highly anticipated healthy Spring delicacy. Sadly, in affluent countries, the incentive to find seasonal foods is nil as there is no real demarcation of seasonality in supermarkets.

I grew up eating nettle soup in Romania. After a long Winter in the absence of fresh greens and vegetables (we pickle pretty much everything we can get our hands on in the Autumn to keep us fed through the Winter months), nothing gives your vitamin and mineral deprived body a better kick-start than fresh young nettle leaves. I can go on and on about all their various health benefits but I’ll name just few here; nettles have copious amounts of iron, vitamins A and C, potassium, manganese, calcium and are rich in protein.

This is in no way a rant on being environmentally responsible or being all health-nutty, these are just the side benefits of eating this delightful leafy green. I am first and foremost keen on flavour and it just so happens that local seasonal food has the best flavours. Nettles have the intense taste of spring, a flavour you simply must try and are worth any small effort you make trying to track them down and pick these prickly little suckers.

As I mentioned on an earlier post, I love to scavenge for my food, I look forward to it and come Spring I am like a kid in a candy store. Armed with a plastic bag and my pink rubber cleaning gloves I venture out into nature’s bounty.

Where and when to find them (100% guaranteed):
Auckland – Cornwall Park near the Archery grounds - September/October
Toronto – Riverdale Farms along Lower Road – April/May

My stinging nettle stash , Cornwall Park


  •  Pick only young shoots
  •  Use gloves at all times when     
  •  handling the nettles
  •  Despite their stinging disposition when  raw, soaking nettles in water or cooking them will remove the stinging chemicals from the plant, which allows them to be handled and eaten without incidence of stinging.

Now that you've picked your leaves, and washed them thoroughly, it’s time to make magic. Here are two simple recipes for nettles. The first is the Romanian soup recipe I grew up on and was passed down to me from my mother. The second is a nettle purée and scallop entrée I developed as a way to celebrate the best of Spring.

Stinging Nettle Soup / “Ciorba de Urzici”


A large bowl-full of nettle leaves
1 Onion, finely chopped
100 g Bacon or pancetta, chopped into cubes
1 Egg yolk
½ Lemon
2 Tb. sour cream

  • Sauté the bacon and onions in a soup pot until the bacon is browned and  onions are translucent
  • Add water, bring to a boil, then salt the water
  • Add the nettle leaves
  • Let simmer for 1 hour
  • Turn off the heat.
  • In a separate bowl, lightly beat an egg yolk and the juice of half a large               lemon, then take a ladle-full of the soup broth and add it to the bowl with the yolk, whisk it lightly and pour it back into the soup pot
  • In a separate bowl, whisk the sour cream and a ladle-full of the soup broth and then add it back  to the soup.

Enjoy with a crusty slice of fresh bread!

Nettle Purée with Bacon and Scallops


1 cup of vegetable stock and 1 cup of water (or 2 shallots finely chopped and 2 cups of water)
3 cups of young stinging nettle leaves
½ a potato, chopped in mid-sized cubes
Lemon to taste
2 Tb. butter
2 wide slices of bacon
A dozen scallops


  • In a small pot heat up 1.5 cups vegetable stock. If you have not made any just sauté some chopped shallots and then add 1.5 cups of water which you will bring to a boil. This second option will yield a subtler flavour but is good nevertheless.
  • Throw in half a chopped potato, add about 3 cups of nettles, turn down the heat and let simmer until the liquid is reduced significantly.
  • Once a thicker consistency is reached, season with salt, pepper. Take this to a blender and puree. Here you may add some butter and squeeze a bit of lemon to your desired taste.
  • Transfer the purée back to the pot and continue simmering it for another few minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  • Meanwhile, stick a couple of slices of bacon on a baking sheet and pop them into the oven until crisp.
  • Then fry some salt and pepper seasoned scallops in hot butter. Only a minute or two on each side depending on their size. I like to squeeze some lemon into the butter sauce so I can drizzle it over the scallops and puree afterwards.

  • Make a little pool of nettle purée on your platter, set the bacon on top and then line the scallops on top of the bacon.
  • The flavours here go so well together particularly, when you have some crusty bread to scoop the purée up with. Enjoy as a first course or light lunch.

Monday, 3 September 2012


Arrabbiata and Other Tomato Pasta Sauce Basics

My Spaghetti all'Arrabbiata (but if you're a purist use Penne)

Years ago when I lived in Germany, I used to travel to Italy incessantly. When not heading down to bella Italia, we had Italia head up to us. This was an informative period for me. It was the time I learned how real pasta dishes ought to taste and how to make them. Mostly I learned it from my ex who lived in Italy at one time and who had various Italian friends coming and going, imparting their pasta know-how.  Out of all the things I learned to make in that period of my life, nothing has given me more mileage than the knowledge of how to prepare various pasta dishes.

So when you find yourself, as one often does, with nothing in the refrigerator, when you are tired from a long day of work, when you have impromptu guests coming over, or when you’re just lazy, you can count on penne all’arrabbiata or bucatini all’amatriciana just to name a couple, to save the day.

Arrabbiata means angry (fem.) in Italian because this sugo or sauce is made with hot chillies. I will focus on the arrabbiata sauce here because it is a good example of a basic tomato-based sugo.  This is a very easy dish but it’s the little things that make it magical. So here are a couple of tips to keep in mind if you want your pasta dish to taste like the real thing:

1.      Use only Italian passata, or canned pomodori pelati/peeled tomatoes. Passata di pomodoro refers to tomatoes that have been "passed" through a sieve to remove seeds and lumps. In this form, it is generally sold in bottles. It is uncooked and contains no additives. Do not make the mistake of using tomato paste or prepared tomato sauce. I know local is better, and then there’s the carbon footprint dilemma, and so on, but trust me and make an exception with the tomatoes. It really tastes infinitely better so look for the Made in Italy seal.

Pomodori pelati, passata, and peperoncini

2.      The best chillies to use are these little hot dried bird's eye chillies. If using chilli flakes, it would take quite a lot of them to bring in the heat. You can also use fresh bird eye chillies. The important thing to remember is that the chillies have to be red and very hot so it takes only a few to render a spicy sauce without altering the taste.
Fresh bird's eye chillies
Dried hot peperoncini

3.      Whatever the cooking time instructions are on the pasta box, take it out half a minute earlier because you will need to transfer the pasta to the sauce pan where the pasta will continue cooking.

Ingredients (2 portions):
  • 1 large garlic clove or 2 small cloves, chopped
  • Olive oil, 1tbsp
  • Pepperoncini – dried bird eye chillies (I use 2 or 3 as they pack in a lot of heat)
  • 2/3 of a bottle of tomato Passata or 1 can of pomodori pelati (skinned whole tomatoes)
  • 250 g Penne Rigate or Spaghetti (again, use an Italian brand like Barilla or De Cecco)

Making the Sugo all’Arrabbiata:

·         Heat up the olive oil in a skillet and then sauté the chopped garlic and crushed peperoncini for about half a minute

·         Pour in the tomato passsata or canned peeled tomatoes accompanied by about a half a cup of water. If using the whole peeled tomatoes let them cook for about 15 minutes first before mashing them down with a wooden spoon for a smooth texture.

·         Add salt to taste and let the sauce simmer on low heat for about 35 to 40 minutes so that it has had a chance to reduce and become thicker and more concentrated flavour.

·         Place the pasta in a large pot of boiling and well salted water. Remove the pasta from the pot just short of the recommended cooking time and transfer it to the pan where the sauce is cooking. Be sure not to drain the pasta completely as you need to bring with it some of the starchy water it has been cooking in (about 2-3 tbsp.)

·         Stir the pasta through the sauce making sure it’s covered well, about half and minute. This process will ensure the pasta and sauce are cooking and emulsifying together.
·         Take off the heat and transfer to plates. Garnish with grated Parmigiano Regiano, olive oil, chopped flat parsley, and then tuck into this hot little number.


As mentioned earlier, using this sauce as a base you can make a variety of other pasta dishes (just be sure to cut back on the chillies). For example, add 2 tbsps. of ricotta cheese towards the end of the cooking time of your tomato sauce. Alternatively, you can add some cream at the end for a creamy rose sauce. Or you can easily make one of my favorites, Spaghetti all’ Amatriciana by starting out the dish by frying up a handful of diced pancetta, guanciale (see Real Cheeky Carbonara blog post)  or double smoked bacon, then continuing in the same way as above with the garlic and tomato passata.

Farfalle or bow-tie pasta with tomato ricotta sauce