Sunday, May 12, 2013

Superfood "Mac & Cheese" Casserole Recipe with Foraged Nettles and Quinoa



While looking for morels this weekend, I was pretty excited to stumble upon a nice patch of wood nettles. Wood nettles, like their more popular cousins the stinging nettles, are nutritional powerhouses--superfoods! They are rich in vitamins A, C, D, and K, and calcium (more than a glass of milk!).

For me, nettles I trust to eat are rather a rarity. Stinging nettles are generally easier to find, because they prefer disturbed ground settings, growing as common weeds in areas that have been touched by human hands. But for this reason, at least in NJ where I live, I never find any I can trust to be pesticide and road-waste free. These gorgeous plants, growing deep in the old-growth forest, were clearly untouched and safe to eat.

Tasty young wood nettle
Despite their name, wood nettles still sting, especially the older plants. As I was hunting for morels that day, I didn't have any gloves. For that reason, and because the shoots are more tender and flavorful anyway--I avoided any plants over about 7", and focused on harvesting the little ones. I still got stung, sometimes enough to make me walk away and continue my search for morels for a good 15 minutes, till the sting subsided. As Thayer (in his book, the Forager's Harvest) says, it is best to only touch the stems with your tough finger-tips. The worst stinging happens when you accidentally brush the plant with the soft skin on top of your hand, or inside your wrist.

I have had this recipe on my mind for some time, and I rushed home to make it. It's really, really good. It's guilt-free comfort food, a perfect balance of vitamins from the nettles, protein from the quinoa and cottage cheese, calcium from the nettles and the cheese, and minerals from the mushrooms. By replacing some of the cheddar with fat-free cottage cheese (another superfood), we up the nutrition and reduce the fat further while still keeping the oozy cheesy, gooey-ness factor.

Next time you get stung by a weed in your garden, whip this up for dinner, you won't be disappointed!

Superfood "Mac" & Cheese

serves 4-6
Before getting topped off with cheddar
and baked in the oven

4 cups of tightly packed nettle shoots
(stinging or wood nettle both work)
3/4 cup uncooked quinoa (you want about 3 cups cooked)
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese + 1/2 cup shredded cheddar for topping
1 1/2 cups fat-free cottage cheese
8 oz fresh mushrooms, wild/cremini, sliced *
butter or olive oil
freshly-ground black pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
kosher salt (optional)
cayenne pepper (optional)
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs (optional--not used here), omit for gluten-free

* I opted not to use my morels here, and used cremini instead. I wasn't sure how the flavors would jive. In hindsight, I think they would work very well together, so if you find them, definitely throw in a morel or two.

  1. Start a couple cups of water boiling. Meanwhile, melt 1 tbs of butter, or olive oil, in a saute pan. 
  2. Start your mushrooms in the saute pan over medium-low heat. Stir to coat them in the melted butter.
  3. Add your nettles to the boiling water. Blanch for about 15 seconds, stirring to ensure every stem and leaf gets covered with the water. Blanching kills the nettle sting.
  4. Drain your nettles--reserving the liquid (optional)--and immediately rinse with cold water, to stop the cooking process. 
  5. Using the reserved liquid, start cooking your quinoa according to package directions. The nettle water is perfectly safe, and full of nutrients that can be absorbed by the quinoa. However, if you prefer not to use it, you can use water, broth or stock instead.
  6. Pre-heat the oven to 350.
  7. Mix the cottage and cheddar cheeses (reserving 1/2 cup of the cheddar for topping). Add in garlic powder, a dash of cayenne (optional, but recommended), and lots of freshly-ground black pepper.
  8. Mix the blanched nettle shoots in with the cheeses. When the mushrooms and quinoa are cooked, mix them in as well. Optional: salt to taste. 
  9. Grease an oven-safe casserole dish. The one I used was about a 13" x 9" oval, something in that general size is perfect. Spread the mixture evenly into your dish.
  10. Spread the 1/2 of cheddar cheese over the top. If you want extra crunch (and don't need the meal to be gluten-free), top that with 1/2 cup of panko bread crumbs. 
  11. Cook in the pre-heated oven for about 25 minutes, till cheesy and gooey. Serve immediately.


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