NettlesBy Ron Post
February 19, 2019
One of the great joys of living in Italy is enjoying its multitude of open-air markets. At a glance, these canvas bazaars for agriculturally-based regional commerce are not unlike our own farmers markets in Seattle. Notwithstanding, there is a particular unfolding here in Italy’s central village squares and inner city neighborhoods that lends to their markets an orchestral quality.
The pre-dawn quiet is broken by the faint beginnings of today’s commercial crescendo, as muffler-less vans begin converging on the market site. The market begins to form as these decrepit vehicles arrive from the surrounding country side, each laden with that morning’s offerings of produce or cut-rate domestic offerings but all carrying, piggy-back style, the familiar swaddling of poles, canvas, and rope atop that will be unstrapped and staked unto temporary places of business.
The vendors spill out of their vans and the crescendo increases. They are long-familiar, serenading one another with song, familiar greetings and lively banter as they knit their canvas commercial patchwork together. The tune tightens as the morning’s preparation continues, as the vendors intently arrange their merchandise and stack their crates. Dozens of tiny espresso spoons tink-tink-tinkle in unison in their respective cups, as the vendors stir sugar into steaming espressos hustled out from their preferred barriste just as the first customers begin to arrive.
The earthy intermingling of fresh espresso and freshly arranged vegetables signal the beginning of the market’s activity. It will quickly become a full-blown cacophony by mid-morning, a boisterous din of vendors hawking their wares, each periodically soloing-out a call-to-action, for shoppers to come over to where the greens are freshest, the fruit is ripest, the selection is best
Yet by 11:30 the decrescendo begins. Mothers and grandmothers disappear, one-by-one, with bags and two-wheeled carts stuffed with the day’s cooking. The whisper of street sweepers’ brooms signals an end to today’s open air market; by the the time the first waves of mid-lunch heat begin to beat down on the market place all trace of its morning’s activity will have been re-crated, reloaded, and driven away.
In these hustling hubs of instant commercial activity each vendor has his or her own offerings and style of attracting customers. In our particular market, in Piazza Alberone in Rome, growers or vendors would call out about their regional specialties: the sliced meat man from Norcia with his prosciutto dolce and jars of olives and plastic tubs of fresh ricotta, the tiny yellow apple lady from Palestrina whose fresh eggs were sold wrapped like china cups in layers of newspaper, a wizened old gentleman with the tough microgreens called “misticanza,” ten types to a scoop-a botanical garden for the plate. Going to this market and picking the most appetizing offerings of the season became a life ritual, a daily foraging tied to the seasons and the search for inspiration for that day’s meal.
Back home in Seattle in my local farmers market, I become grounded every season by its spring opening. Last week, for instance, inspired by a bed of nettles cream served under a seasonal slab of halibut at Beato Restaurant, I dashed to the West Seattle farmers market to seek out my own bag of fresh, gnarly nettles to blanch and cook. Nettles are an almost laughable local vegetable, a food that shows that people were once so poor and hungry that they foraged in fallow lands near their habitations, found this stinging plant, and turned it into something edible. We had eaten nettles for the very first time in a creamy pesto at our country trattoria Da Mimmo in Rome and now here we were eating them in season again here at the refined Beato. Weedy nettles, then, are a local food, born of a poor person’s cuisine in at least two of our favorite local cultures.
And these stinging nettles, once boiled in salting water and drained, offer anything but an impoverished flavor. They are like an aged spinach, deep and earthy, with the aroma of a fine dry green tea. Naturally my Italian palate moved me to blend them into a hearty green pesto, which I used to fill pita pockets and spooned over hot La Romagna umbricelli pasta. Try them sauteed under local fresh haibut, or end-of-winter Washington potatoes, colcannon style.
Nettles Pesto Italian Style
¼ pound fresh nettles leaves
½ cup Tenuta Cocevola Extra Virgin Olive Oil
¼ cup Radici of Tuscany Organic Wild Pinenuts
1 tsp. Casina Rossa Sweet & Salt
¼ cup finely grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
Casina Rossa Limited Edition Salt
Bring a pot of water to boil. Add some Casina Rossa Limited Edition Salt. Place the nettle leaves directly from your container into the pot of boiling water taking care not to touch them with any bare skin. Allow to boil for about ten minutes, until well cooked. Drain and rinse for several minutes under cold water. Squeeze several times to allow all water to be removed. Cool completely.
In a food processor place the pinenuts, salt, cheese and olive oil. Pulse for a few seconds to chop coarsely.
Coarsely chop the cooked and cooled nettles leaves. Process for a minute or so with the other ingredients until a smooth cream is obtained. If mixture is too thick, add more extra virgin olive oil.