A couple of months ago, as I was just starting work on the recipe testing for the dish I’m sharing with you today, I came into my house carrying two heaping brown paper bags of stinging nettles. I’d picked them up at the farmers market and carted them home with me, eager to get started on my new project.
As I turned the washed leaves out onto my countertop, I pulled on a pair of latex gloves and started removing the leaves from the stems. My husband, sitting at the countertop bar that overlooks our kitchen, eyed me suspiciously as I worked. “Why are you doing that with gloves?” he asked. I laughed a little, but before I could reply, I let out a loud four-letter word (I can’t remember which, probably all of them). I’d gotten stung by the deceptively sweet looking nettle leaves through my gloves. Apparently, latex wasn’t going to cut it. (This seems painfully obvious to me now, not sure how I didn’t realize before!) So I switched to my thick-as-steel oyster shucking gloves while simultaneously explaining to my husband that that was exactly why I needed gloves. Stinging nettles sting.
“Oh, please. Those little leaves? Psshh,” he said. And then he hopped off his barstool, picked up a leaf and rubbed it back and forth over the back of his hand. “See?” he said, “No sting. It’s all in your head.” (Do you see what I have to deal with over here? “All in my head,” ha!) But by the time he’d made it back around the counter to his barstool, he’d already starting letting out his own assortment of four-letter words and his hand had swelled with two bright red welts. I felt bad, really I did, but I couldn’t help but laugh a little too. It served him right for saying it was all in my head.
Yes, the bounty of the Pacific Northwest has a lot to teach us Southern-born kids. And that’s kind of how it’s been (though not always quite so painful) ever since we moved here.
In the spirit of celebrating the bounty of the PNW, I’ve teamed up with the Washington-based Columbia Winery and Food52 to bring you a series of 5 recipes that are inspired by our special corner of the country. For each recipe, I’ll offer a wine pairing from one of Columbia Winery’s unique and elegant wines and I’ll share with you the details of exactly how the recipe evolved on Food52.
For the first recipe in the series, I’m putting a fun twist on the classic orecchiette. Orecchiette is an ear-shaped pasta that is traditionally paired with a bright green basil pesto. I wanted to give the dish a more rustic feel, however, so I’ve made my orecchiette with a rye flour, which lends a little bit of a farm-like flavor to the pasta. I’ve also tossed it in an earthy nettle purée and topped it with a tangy feta and a sprinkle of delicate chive blossoms.
It’s a dish that literally oozes with springtime bounty. It also pairs perfectly with Columbia Winery’s Chardonnay, with its hints of tropical fruit and subtle touches of vanilla.
A few tips:
Nettles are an ideal pairing for this rustic pasta, but if you’re having trouble finding them this late in the season, you can always substitute spinach in their place. I’ve done it before with great success, though the flavor will be slightly less earthy.
I’ve offered my recommended technique for the orecchiette construction, which uses hands and fingers. However, there are other ways of constructing the uniquely-shaped pasta. For example, Cynthia demonstrates a technique that uses a butter knife in one of her recent posts (and she also somehow makes the demonstration look stunningly artful!). Another reader wrote in to the Food52 team and suggested using the back of a 1/2-teaspoon measuring spoon…brilliant, why didn’t I think of that?! I’d recommend trying all of the techniques and seeing which feels like a better fit for your fingers.
- 1 ½ cups of rye flour plus 1 tablespoon (about 165 grams)
- 1 ½ cups of semolina flour (about 280 grams), plus more for shaping
- 3 teaspoons of kosher salt
- 1 cup of warm water, plus 2-3 extra tablespoons if needed
- ¼ cup of olive oil, plus more as needed
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped roughly
- 1 shallot, chopped roughly
- ½ pound of nettles, stems removed (about 7-8 cups, or 4 ounces, of loosely packed leaves)
- ½ to ¾ cups of chicken or vegetable stock
- salt and pepper, to taste
- ¼ cup of reserved pasta liquid, plus more as needed
- 8 ounces of sheep’s milk feta cheese
- Lemon zest, of ¼ lemon
- Chive blossoms or fresh snipped chives, for garnish
- In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, mix together the rye flour, semolina flour, and salt using the dough hook attachment. Add 1 cup of warm water and combine on medium speed (or by hand) until a dough ball forms and pulls away from the side. If you notice the dough crumbling, add 1-3 more tablespoons of warm water. If you notice that it’s too sticky, add 1-3 more tablespoons of rye flour until it loses its stickiness.
- Next, knead the dough until it becomes smooth and supple. If you’re using a stand mixer, this will take about 5-6 minutes on medium speed; if you’re using your hands, it will take a bit longer, about 8-10 minutes. The dough should cohesive and smooth after kneading. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest in a dry place at room temperature for at least 45 minutes.
- Once dough has rested, lightly dust your workspace with about 1 tablespoon of semolina flour. A wooden work surface, such as butcher-block countertops or a large wooden board, are ideal for shaping the orecchiette. Use the dusting flour sparingly, 1-2 tablespoons should be enough for the entire mass of dough. Next, dust 2 large rimmed baking trays with semolina flour, again sparingly, about 1 tablespoon per tray.
- Cut off approximately ⅙th of the dough (about 100 grams) and roll into a long rope that’s about ½-inch in diameter. Cut the log into several small pieces, about ½-inch wide, and one by one roll each piece into a circle. To give you a sense of how large these should be, 5 orcchiette pieces (uncooked) should weigh about 12-15 grams. Press down with your finger (I use my middle finger, but you could also use your thumb) into the center of the circle onto the dusted work surface and rotate your finger in small circles from the wrist to spread the dough into a bowl shape and make it thin at the bottom. Next, pinch the dough piece on your finger to smooth out the shape and, to get the class orecchiette shape, pull back on the edges to create a small “ear like” saucer. Place the finished orecchietta on the dusted baking tray and continue the process until all of the dough is formed into orecchiette. Make sure not to allow them to touch on the tray or else they will stick together.
- The formed orecchiette can be frozen on trays and then transferred and stored in sealed storage containers in the freezer for up to 2-3 weeks. Cook the frozen orecchiette just as you would the fresh and do not thaw before cooking.
- In a large pot, heat ¼ cup of olive oil over medium. Add shallots and cook until translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add nettles, salt, and pepper, and chicken broth and cook, stirring frequently, until nettles have wilted, about 5-6 minutes.
- Transfer to a bowl and blend with immersion blender or purée in a food processor until smooth. Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a gentle simmer. Add orecchiette and cook until you notice them float to the top, about 3-4 minutes. Once they’ve floated to the top, continue to cook approximately 2-3 minutes longer or until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of pasta cooking liquid for later use and drain cooked orecchiette in a colander.
- Toss cooked orecchiette with the nettles and ¼ cup of the reserved pasta liquid. Add the nettle purée and pasta liquid a little bit at a time until you’ve reached your desired ratio. If you have leftover nettle purée, you can freeze it in ice cubes for several weeks for later use.
- Finally, toss the finished pasta with feta, the zest of ¼ of a lemon, and garnish with fresh herbs. I used chive blossoms here for their delicate flavor, but fresh-snipped chives would also work well.
Rye flour is a fun way to change up traditional pastas and breads and is an easy substitute for all-purpose flour. However, it does absorb a bit more water than regular all-purpose flour, so if you plan to substitute one for the other, you should keep this in mind.
I have recommended the use of sheep’s milk feta here, which can be found in many specialty and gourmet grocers. However, if you have difficulty finding it, you can also substitute regular feta cheese crumbles or even a few dollops of ricotta in its place.