First, a dedication: here are Edvard Grieg’s “To Spring” and Christian Sinding’s “Rustles of Spring” for all the mothers out there, especially to my own mom and others who faithfully drove their kids to music lessons week after week. The Grieg piece is beyond me now, but I surprised myself recently when I sat down at the piano and discovered I can still sort of play “Rustles of Spring” (it sounds a lot harder than it really is).
It makes a lot of sense that Norwegian composers would salute spring in their music. Even here where we live in Germany, winter is long, cloudy, and dark, and the arrival of spring is a welcome change. This year we had an early teaser with several beautiful weeks in March, then it turned gray and cold on us. Finally now every day is longer and lighter, the trees are all covered with new leaves, it’s getting warmer, and I have a couple of springtime recipes that go together very nicely – nettle turnovers and Spargelsuppe.
A month or so ago I was talking with my friend Rebecca and she mentioned some kind of whipped up green appetizer they’d sampled somewhere in the Black Forest. The chef wouldn’t say what it was, but he did say no, no, and no when she guessed ingredients such as spinach, peas, and asparagus. I wondered if it might be nettles, and that set me to looking up recipes and gathering tips. Stinging nettles grow all over around my favorite walking route, but around that time we hit a busy and rainy spell and I didn’t make it out to pick any until the other day.
In my reading I learned that nettles have historically been valued as a spring food source in northern Europe, especially in places like Scandinavia and the Baltics. In fact, when I gave Rebecca a sample of my nettle turnovers she mentioned that her neighbor from Lithuania said they always used to gather nettles for soup and dry them for tea. Rebecca got me started on this nettle tea with lemongrass and I really like it.
Nettles don’t even grow where I come from on the dry side of the Evergreen State, so I didn’t know what they looked like until I pulled one out of my little flower garden after we moved to Germany (bare-handed gardening, ouch!). Ever since then I’ve been careful to avoid nettles when I’m out walking, and it felt a little funny to be purposefully seeking them out. Although they are thriving along all the nearby country roads and trails, it seemed like a good idea to gather my greens off the path a ways where people don’t walk their dogs. Other than that, my only tips are to go gathering before the plants get tall and start to bloom, wear gloves, hold the top of the plant with tongs, snip to remove the top few sets of leaves, and drop the cuttings into a basket or other container (and don’t touch them!).
When you get home, use the tongs to hold each stem while snipping off the leaves, then dump the leaves into a big bowl of cold water to wash away any dirt or bugs, which will settle to the bottom of the bowl (well, the bugs might float, but you can pick them out with a spoon). I found lots of conflicting advice about blanching time, ranging from 30 seconds to five minutes, and just today I came across a New York Times article from last week that said blanching is not necessary – the leaves can go straight into a sauté pan and the heat will deactivate the sting (and next year I might be brave enough to try it with young early spring nettle leaves). I put a big pot of salted water on to boil, thinking I’d go with a minute, but I chickened out and left the leaves in for almost three minutes just to be sure they wouldn’t sting me. I didn’t think to try to weigh the leaves, but I started out with a big pile of leaves, and after blanching, chilling in cold water, draining, and squeezing excess water out I had a solid ball of green stuff about the size of a softball. I would say it was about a pound of leaves, or maybe a quart and a half to two quarts of loosely packed leaves before blanching.
The turnovers use the same method as spanakopita triangles, and I think it would work very well to use a spanakopita recipe with nettles instead of spinach. When I was getting ready to do something with nettles I didn’t have any feta, but I did have some mascarpone I bought with a vague purpose in mind, plus some shredded emmentaler, and the combination turned out very well. I added an egg as a binder to keep the mascarpone from melting all over the oven, and continued the green theme by finally thinking to use some of the mass of chives growing on the edge of the terrace. The result looked like it was bursting with chlorophyll! Next year I’ll try to go out gathering much earlier in the season and make some beautiful spring-green filled turnovers for St. Patrick’s Day.
- 1 ½ to 2 quarts nettle leaves, trimmed, washed, blanched, drained, and squeezed as described above
- 250 grams mascarpone (cream cheese or ricotta would also work)
- ¾ cup shredded emmentaler (or any “Swiss” type cheese)
- 3 tablespoons snipped chives
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 egg
- 10 sheets phyllo
- ½ – ¾ cup butter, melted
Place the squeezed-together lump of blanched and drained nettles on a cutting board and roughly chop. Blend the cheeses, nettle, and chives in a bowl and salt and pepper to taste. Beat in the egg and set aside.
Place a sheet of phyllo on your work surface and brush it lightly with melted butter. Put another phyllo sheet on top and brush it with butter. Cut the double layer of phyllo into four strips with a pizza cutter or knife.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Place a tablespoon or so of the nettle filling on the end of one strip, then fold into a triangle (like you would fold a flag). Place on a parchment-covered baking sheet and brush one more time with melted butter. Repeat this process until all of the phyllo is used up – you should end up with 20 turnovers. Poke the top of each one in several places with a fork.
Bake at 375 F until the turnovers are golden brown. Based on the spanakopita recipes I read, I thought it would take around 15 minutes, but it was closer to 25 minutes (just keep an eye on them).
Cool slightly and serve, or they are also good at room temperature. I didn’t try freezing the turnovers before baking, but baked frozen turnovers were very good warmed in the oven (I let them thaw first, but I don’t think it would be necessary).
Spargelzeit! Asparagus Season!
Signs are popping up all over, advertising frische Spargel in the produce markets and Spargelmenu in restaurants. Germans celebrate Mother’s Day the same day as Americans, and Spargel is traditional for Mother’s Day dinner since the date coincides with Spargelzeit. Germans do love their asparagus, especially the white kind that is covered while it grows to prevent photosynthesis (hmm, good thing we have a good shot of green stuff from the nettles in this meal). I have developed a real taste for asparagus – I actually like the green kind better, but I am also very fond of traditional German Spargelsuppe made with white asparagus.
One thing about white asparagus, it has a tough, somewhat bitter skin, and you have to peel the stalks. Well, I was surprised when I stopped at a local produce store to learn that they have a giant asparagus peeling machine that does the job in no time. However, the last bundle I bought came from a little roadside stand, with no fancy machine in sight, so I peeled the spears myself (really not too time-consuming). Even so, I had soup on the table pretty quickly, and it is a good pairing for the nettle turnovers.
Adapted from the Dr. Oetker German Cooking Today cookbook
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 pound white asparagus, peeled and tough ends removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
- ¼ cup flour
- ¼ cup white wine
- ½ cup water
- 1¼ cup milk
- ¼ cup crème fraîche
- 1 tablespoon snipped chives
- Dried or fresh parsley, chopped (to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a large saucepan and stir the asparagus pieces around in it until they are coated. Let the asparagus cook in the butter for about five minutes, until it releases water. Sprinkle with flour and stir to mix the flour in and coat the asparagus. Add wine, water, and milk and stir until the liquid is smooth. Let it simmer uncovered until the asparagus is tender, about 20 minutes. Puree in the blender or using an immersion blender. Stir in crème fraîche and chives and season to taste with parsley, salt and pepper. In restaurants here, the soup is frequently served with a big dollop of unsweetened whipped cream and a few croutons, and it is really good that way (but you can always substitute another spoonful of crème fraîche and it will still look pretty and taste like that flavor you looked forward to all winter long). Happy Mother’s Day!