Thursday, April 24, 2014

Foraged Spring Stracciatella with Nettles & Field Garlic

Spring foraging should be well underway mid-April, but it's a week or two late this year. So I came up with this dish as a way to make the most of the small edibles one can find just starting to come out here and there.

Field garlic: the tube-like leaves are hollow
and smell strongly of garlic when broken
Traditional stracciatella is made with spinach, and has a very mild flavor, so henbit, deadnettle, or lambsquarters (when they start to come up) would be great, but I wanted something with a bit more of an herbal punch--and these greens, a mix of bitter (dandelion), pungent (field garlic and ramps) and sweet (nettles) satisfied my craving for the flavors of spring. But the recipe isn't exact, feel free to substitute whatever comes your way or strikes your fancy.

The base recipe is vegetarian. I added pasta and Italian sausage to the dish to make it a main course meal. You could leave both out, and make it a starter course or light lunch. Or you could replace with cannelloni beans and make it gluten-free and vegetarian. If you have a little more time on your hands to run to the bakery, serving the soup with some whole-wheat bread and ramp butter would be amazing!

Field garlic, nettles and (underneath) dandelions,
the knotweed in the back was used in another dish.
Anyway, while many of the exact greens you use are open to interpretation, the field garlic is essential. Some people find field garlic to be "too much work". I guess that depends on how you look at it. Yes, you have to dig it up and wash it off, but I find it washes easily. The bulbs are small, smaller generally than a single clove of cultivated garlic--but they don't have the papery husks that are such a pain to remove. You also get a lot of plant with field garlic, as both the grass-like top leaves and the bulbs are edible, and usable in different ways. I used both in this dish.

A good-sized field garlic plant has a bulb roughly the diameter of a dime, but most of what I harvested were half that size, and they weren't especially hard to work with.

The nettles used here are stinging nettles, which appear earlier than wood nettles. Given the choice, I would have preferred wood nettles--stinging nettles are a bit stringy, even young like this. I only harvested the top 4" or so of young (under 6" plants).

Sam Thayer says that stinging nettle stings hurt less than wood nettle, but I disagree. I think the sting from stinging nettle is both more painful, and definitely lasts longer. Also, on young plants of either variety, the stingers are closer together, and it's much easier to get stung.
This plant was too close to the path to harvest (dog pee=gross)
but it clued me into looking around for a safer patch

How to tell the difference between the two? When the plants are older, the leaf shape is different. When they are very mature, the seed placement is different -- but you wouldn't want to be eating them at that point.

Generally the easiest way to tell is where you harevest them: stinging nettles like full sun, and wood nettles like full shade. Stinging nettles also start growing in early spring, and wood nettles don't arrive till mid-spring.

Stracciatella is a light soup made with fresh greens, Parmesan cheese, and eggs. It is sometimes refereed to as Italian egg-drop soup, because of the similarities in how it's made.

Foraged Spring Field Garlic Stracciatella

Serves 4 as a light meal

1/4 lb small whole wheat pasta, like elbows or dittalini, optional
4 large handfuls of mixed wild greens--nettles and dandelions used here
10 or so ramp leaves
20 or so medium-sized field  garlic plants, bulbs and greens, dirt cleaned
4 eggs
2 oz. finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional, for serving
2 links of hot Italian sausage, optional
2 cups of vegetable stock, homemade or quality store-bought
Olive oil or butter
Salt and pepper
Red pepper flakes, for serving
  1. Start preparing the pasta according to the package directions. 
  2. Remove the casings of the sausage, if using, and break up the filling. Start browning the filling in a pan, stirring as needed. 
  3. While the pasta and sausage cook, roughly chop all your greens except the field garlic. 
  4. Break off the stringy ends to you field garlic. break the bulbs from the green parts. Mince the bulbs.
  5. Break up or roughly chop the field garlic greens and add them to your other wild greens. 
  6. Saute the field garlic bulbs in a stock-pot, for about 4 minutes in olive oil, butter or the sausage grease. Lightly salt them.
  7. Whisk eggs together. Gently whisk the Parmesan into the egg mixture. Salt the mixture lightly.
  8. Add the 2 cups of stock and 2 cups of water to your garlic bulbs, and bring to a simmer.
  9. Gently drizzle in the egg and cheese mixture, while simmering. Using your fork, make trails of the mixture into the soup, and break it up slightly.
  10. Add the mixed greens to the pot and stir gently. Bring to a boil and cook for at least 5 minutes, if using nettles. Add in the cooked sausage and pasta, if using, bring to a simmer and heat through.
  11. Taste for salt and pepper, and serve with extra Parmesan, red pepper flakes, and crusty bread.

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