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Sunday, May 13, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

When nettlesome becomes nice

The New York Times

At the market the other day (a rather chilly spring day), a vendor had gorgeous bunches of wild stinging nettles in addition to a farm-grown bok choy, mustard, pea shoots, dandelion and young chard. Because I adore the flavor of nettles, the choice was easy. And somehow I knew immediately that what I wanted to make for dinner was a bowl of earthy farro pasta with nettles.

These are not run-of-the-mill ingredients, but not to worry. This simple pasta dish can be made with any other dried pasta, and with cultivated spring greens. But let me try to seduce you to the nettles and farro. If you've never tried nettles, imagine the best spinach you ever had, only deeper, greener and sweeter. I won't pretend they aren't tricky to handle: Nettles are leaves with little stinging hairs.

Don't worry, it's not like cactus. Just wear gloves or use tongs to rinse the leaves when you get home and to transfer them to the pan. When the nettles are briefly cooked, their prickle disappears. Foragers and connoisseurs have long prized them for their flavor and healthfulness. Some cooks prefer to blanch nettles in boiling water, but I saute them, adding just a splash of liquid, as with cooking most other greens.

For farro pasta, check better supermarkets, Italian specialty stores or online. Farro, or emmer, is a high-protein relative of wheat frequently used in Italy, especially Tuscany. It can be milled into flour to make a wonderful nutty-tasting pasta, or cooked whole for soups or salads. It has been gaining popularity here, rediscovered by a new generation, although it has never gone out of style in the European kitchen. Farro pasta, like all dried artisanal pastas, is extruded into shapes like penne, fusilli or spaghetti. I especially like pizzichi, a flat noodle with a ruffled end.

I cooked the nettles in a mixture of lightly browned onions and crumbled homemade hot Italian fennel sausage (easily made, but quality store-bought is fine, too). To finish, I added a little coarsely grated ricotta salata, a mild feta-like sheep's milk cheese.

With the dark whole-grain noodles, it was rather rustic looking but seemed just right for a rainy spring night.


Time: About 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, diced small

Salt and pepper

1 pound hot Italian fennel sausage, casings removed (see recipe for homemade sausage)

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 pound farro pasta (or another type of dried pasta)

1 pound rinsed nettle leaves (or other greens, like bok choy or mustard, roughly chopped)

Ricotta salata cheese for grating (or Romano or Parmesan)

1. Fill a large pot with water for pasta and bring it to a boil.

2. In a wide, deep skillet, heat the olive oil over a medium-high burner. Add the onion and a little salt, and let the onion begin to soften. Add the sausage meat, breaking it into rough pieces with a wooden spoon, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are lightly browned and the sausage is done, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste and stir well to coat. Turn off the heat.

3. Salt the pasta water and begin cooking the pasta. When the pasta is nearly ready, reheat the onion and sausage mixture over a high burner. Add the nettles or greens to the pan along with ¼ cup pasta water and stir until wilted and tender, about 2 minutes. Check the seasoning.

4. Drain the pasta when al dente and mix with the skillet ingredients in a large warmed bowl. Serve with coarsely grated ricotta salata.


Time: About 10 minutes

Yield: Makes 1 pound

1 pound coarsely ground pork shoulder, not too lean

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds

½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste

1 tablespoon mild paprika

3 garlic cloves, minced

1. Put the pork in a bowl and add all remaining ingredients. Mix well to distribute the seasoning evenly throughout the meat.

2. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days, or freeze for future use.

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