Last week was the hotly anticipated beginning of my summer CSA with Local Roots. I’m especially excited this year because it’s kind of a CSA cooperative.
Four Eight different local farmers grouped up to offer a vegetable option, a fruit one, eggs, beans and grains, bread, and then meat, and you can elect whatever shares you want to join. Last summer I did separate fruit and vegetable shares and while it was fun to make the two stops each week to retrieve the goods, it’s going to be really convenient to have an all-in-one pick-up this year. Having signed up for vegetable, fruit, beans/grains, and eggs, I foresee very few trips to the grocery store for a while.
At this very first pick-up of the season, I was instructed to carefully collect a whole pound of stinging nettles. I’ve been hearing about stinging nettles for a while, but I’ve never cooked with them. Plastic gloves? In my home kitchen? No thanks. (And I don’t like super spicy food, so I don’t have gloves for the hot pepper problem, either.) But now I found myself in possession, so I had to figure out a way to put them to use. Local Roots provided several recipes, but I had a dinner party coming up and I was starting to fret over the centerpiece to the meal. I figured I couldn’t go wrong with quiche, so that’s what I made: in a rye crust, with dollops of fresh ricotta. It was good, it was rich, but the nettles mostly faded into the wallpaper. The following weekend I went up to visit my friend Ilsa’s farm in western Massachusetts. I had a half a pound of nettles left, so I brought supplies up there to test the quiche again.
“Son, I hate to break the news to you but that is a weed,” Ilsa said. Two sides to every coin! One person’s weed goes into another person’s quiche. I knew about its weed status, but I’d forgotten when I served the quiche the first time at my dinner party, where everyone seemed so curious and impressed. But Ilsa had gathered up nettles when she was setting up the farm there, and at that time, of course, they were something of a menace. But I’ve been to the farm several times now and I’ve never cooked anything that was less than scrumptious (it’s part of the magic of the place; the farm after all is called “Anahata”), and so the Nettle Quiche turned out perfect. I nixed the ricotta (which had soured on the drive up) and made a cornmeal crust.
Nettles are very strange, because after you blanch them—and they aren’t safe to handle with your bare hands until you do—taste a leaf. It’ll taste like almost nothing, like the water you just blanched it in. Add a pinch of salt and suddenly a flavor comes into focus. But we couldn’t agree on how to describe that flavor: I thought it was minty, Ilsa thought it tasted fishy, in a good way. In any case, we wolfed down the quiche.
The farm was rejuvenating, as usual. The temperature dropped drastically from what it had been leading up to the weekend, so we spent a lot of the day indoors. We visited a farm and purchased a gallon or raw milk, which we turned into mozzarella cheese when we got home. At the farm we hung out with some adorable little piglets. We went for a hike through a lovely forest. I cooked. I worked. I read. It was perfect. Hello, summer.
Nettle Quiche with Cornmeal Crust
I made this with a rye crust and ricotta cheese for the first test run, and much preferred the recipe below—a slightly sweet, sandy crust due to the cornmeal, and nixing the ricotta. Also, in the photos above I didn’t chop up the nettles. Leaving them whole, as I did, makes for a somewhat difficult eating experience—the nettles are chewy—and left pockets of custard that didn’t cook at the same rate. I highly recommend chopping up the nettles before adding them to the tart shell. You could even whisk them into the custard if you’d like.
1/2 pound stinging nettles
1 tablespoon butter
3 plump scallions, white and pale green parts sliced thinly, or 2 shallots, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
1 recipe Cornmeal Crust (recipe below) or your own favorite pre-baked 9- or 10-inch tart shell
1. Preheat the oven to 375°.
2. Bring a pot of water to boil. Using tongs (the raw nettles will actually sting you), submerge the stinging nettles into the water. Cook for about 1 minute, until the leaves are uniformly wilted. Carefully remove them from the pot with tongs and plunge into a bowl of cool water. Drain, and then pick off the leaves, discarding the stems. Gather the leaves up in your hands and squeeze out the excess water. Chop finely.
3. Heat the butter in a skillet or sauté pan. Add the scallions or shallots and pepper flakes and cook just until fragrant, about a minute or two, then stir in the nettles. Stir until evenly coated in the butter.
4. Whisk together the eggs, milk, cream, salt and pepper. This works best in a liquid measuring cup that’s at least 8-cups capacity.
5. Sprinkle most of the cheese over the base of the tart shell, then scatter the nettles and scallions on top of it. Slowly pour the custard into the shell, ensuring that it’s evenly distributed. Sprinkle the top with remaining cheese.
6. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until set in the center. Cool for at least 15 or 20 minutes before serving, so that the quiche can set up. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/3 cup cornmeal (not a coarse-grind)
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3 to 6 tablespoons ice water
1. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour, working it in until the butter is about the size of lumpy peas. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the ice water over the mixture and, using a light hand, mix it into the dough. Add more water, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture just begins to adhere and a handful of the dough holds together without crumbling. Quickly shape the mixture into a disc about two inches in thickness, wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
2. Lightly dust a clean working surface and a rolling pin with flour. Roll the dough into a circle about 13 inches in diameter and 1/8-inch thick. Drape the dough over the rolling pin and quickly (carefully) transfer it to a 10-inch tart pan. Gently tuck the dough into the pan without stretching it, then trim off the excess by running the rolling pin over the top of the tart pan. Press it into the edges with your fingertips. Cover again with plastic wrap and place in the freezer while you preheat the oven to 400°.
3. Prick the base of the shell all over with a fork. Place a piece of parchment paper over it and pour in some pie weights, dried beans, or pennies (I actually skipped this part while cooking at the farm; the crust will swell up when you blind bake it, but it gets weighed down when you pour in the custard—so do with that info what you will). Bake for 15 minutes, remove the parchment and weights, then bake for 5 to 7 minutes more, until browned on the base. Cool slightly before proceeding with the quiche.