The Fat of the Land

Month: April, 2014

Beauty and the Beast

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Wild foods are not for everyone. Their collection can be perilous—from the ruggedness of the landscapes where they grow to the ambiguities of accurate identification—and their flavors are often bold. Wild foods, even in romanticized print, sound wild, as if they belong to a more ancient version of ourselves, relics from leaner times. Herbal medicine maintains an appreciation for their complex chemistry, but we have otherwise written them off as a novelty food, if we consider them food at all.

Perhaps no single wild plant both satisfies and challenges the contemporary reputation of wild foods as much as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). A weedy perennial found on every continent but Antarctica, nettles have long been collected for food, medicine, and fiber. Their use can be traced deep into human history—samples of nettle cloth have been found in Bronze Age excavations—and fragments of their extensive lore linger today. Nettle extracts are used in some commercial soaps and shampoos, and nettle tea is marketed as a popular natural remedy for spring allergies.

Go to pick a stinging nettle and it will remind you of its wildness. Covered with the botanical equivalent of hypodermic needles, nettles insert irritants under the skin, causing welts that can last for days. They prefer rich soils near streams, wetlands and moist woodland and meadows, with a wider range in regions with abundant rainfall.

In the kitchen, their sting is easily tamed. Boiling or steaming the leaves for a few minutes, letting them soak in cold water overnight, or laying them out to dry until brittle are simple techniques to nullify their irritants and transform nettles into a versatile ingredient. Nettles become bitter (and less nutritious) the longer they are cooked. Short blanching times (3-5 minutes) yield the tastiest greens, as tender as the finest spinach but with a more complex flavor profile: nutty and rich with a fresh, surprising sweetness not unlike a cucumber’s.

Nettle’s intense flavor goes a long way, making it an excellent component in creamy soups and sauces, including the popular nesto (nettle pesto). Its silky texture and richness give depth to starches like polenta, risotto, noodles and gnocchi. Nettles may stand in for all or part of the spinach in recipes such as spanakopita or Aloo. Dried leaves can be steeped for tea, or crumbled into powder and used as a seasoning.

We would all do well to incorporate nettles into our diet, as they are an unusually rich source of nutrients. Fresh leaves contain up to 20% protein (dried leaves up to 40%)—more than any other known leafy green—and as a source of essential amino acids, nettles are comparable to beans and chicken meat. A hundred grams of fresh nettle leaves (a generous ½-cup blanched) contains 100% of our daily vitamin-A requirements as well as 46% of our daily calcium, 20% of our daily fiber and 10% of our daily iron.

Water from soaking, steeping or blanching nettle leaves (used both internally and externally) is a traditional skin and hair treatment, purportedly soothing dry skin or strengthening and adding shine to your locks.

As wild foods go, nettles are an extraordinary package: an accessible flavor profile, an impressive catalog of medicinal applications, and a nutritional range and concentration not found in any other leafy vegetable. Their unwelcoming exterior gives way to a wealth of resources, not the least of which is their culinary prowess. A recent foraging expedition yielded a batch of leek and nettle sauce at my house (roasted leeks processed with blanched nettle leaves, some of their blanching water, oil, salt and pepper to make a smooth, bright green puree) that lent stunning visual contrast and botanic zest to a grilled filet of halibut.

As their popularity grows, nettles have become increasingly available to those less interested in the wilderness side of wild foods, popping up more and more at area restaurants, farmers markets and specialty groceries. Their window of availability is brief, however, and the time is now for fresh nettle leaves, whose harvests will wind down by mid-May in our area.

If food is medicine, nettles offer more than their weight in nutritional gold, flavors more beautiful than appearance suggests and a motto that matches the fickleness of spring: take caution, be bold, enjoy with abandon.

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Kitchen Dispatch: Eggs

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I adore foods that are more than they appear at first glance, humble ingredients with surprisingly upward mobility that deftly move from the ordinary to the sublime without requiring fancy equipment or extra expense. A hunk of meat has always been too straightforward for me—delicious in its own right, but without the thrift or finesse to become something new. Milk to cheese, bones to broth, salt water to brine: these are enchanted transformations. But perhaps no other single ingredient is so dazzlingly mutable as the egg, the accessible, affordable, and (if raised well) nutritious egg.

The egg is a sculptor’s dream—raw material that, with manipulation of only temperature or whisk, can produce textures that range from rubbery to crumbling to curdled cheese to custard to silken sauce to foam. An egg can be the center of the meal or the hidden glue that binds and enriches dough (from pastry to pasta), ground meat, soups, or sauces.

We’ve all scrambled, fried or boiled an egg at some point in our lives; even eaters with kitchen phobias are rarely daunted by the prospect of cooking them. What could be simpler than cracking an egg into a pan with melted butter and frying it to one’s personal preference? And that is part of the egg’s charm. Its door is open to everyone with a stovetop and a pan, and its small, inexpensive package is packed with protein. When pasture-raised, chicken eggs contain a healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats (meaning less saturated fat per egg than their commercial counterpart), twice the amount of vitamin E and seven times the beta-carotene (which accounts for the bright orange yolk of pasture-raised eggs).

The particular dynamic of an egg comes from the juxtaposition of its two main components: the white and the yolk, whose respective proteins solidify at different temperatures and to different ends (the yolk’s grainy crumb to the white’s gelatin-smoothness). Such a variety of proteins all in one package accounts for much of the egg’s versatility, and its culinary challenge. To truly manipulate an egg means to employ subtle technique, attention to detail, and, yes, sometimes special equipment.

No one has proven this more thoroughly than Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology at The International Culinary Center in NYC. Boiling eggs in their shell using a somewhat pricey devise known as an immersion circulator (useful for its ability to keep water at a consistent and precise temperature), Arnold was able to show that even three-degree (Fahrenheit) differences in cooking temperature cause wide variances in texture.

Eggs held at 143.5 F set their whites perfectly and maintained a uniformly creamy yolk (a near impossibility on the stovetop). About 7-degrees up, at 151 F, the whole egg becomes malleable. Arnold nicknamed this stage the Play-Doh egg because it can be rolled out like marzipan. At 154 F that flexible yolk begins to turn granular and at 162 F takes on the crumbly texture we know from our own home-boiled eggs. (Notice that all of these temperatures are well under the boiling point of 212 F.)

For those of us without precision cooking instruments, there are a couple basic rules to mind. Firstly, eggs change with age. One result of aging is that their whites get runnier. Thus, fresh eggs are preferred for preparations such as poaching, frying or soufflé that depend on firm whites and a perky, well-capsulated yolk. As an egg ages, however, the outer membrane of the white loosens its grip on the shell, making less-than-fresh eggs a good choice for boiling, as the shell will release more readily.

Secondly, as illustrated by Dave Arnold, the proteins in eggs respond best to slow, low temperature heating. When eggs are cooked at too high of a temperature, their proteins bond rapidly, pushing water out of their rubbery constructs instead of incorporating that moisture into a delicate texture. If your fully cooked scrambled eggs have ever sat in a pool of water on your plate, you are familiar with these consequences. Poaching and “boiling” eggs in water under a boil, or frying and scrambling on medium to low heat are simple adjustments that greatly improve even the most basic egg preparations.

As home cooks, we are lucky to have such a versatile and approachable ingredient. Sure, things will go badly now and then, but another egg is easy and affordable to come by. When that perfectly poached egg lands on your buttered toast, or your boiled egg slices to reveal a sun-colored yolk with a creamy crumb, you will thank yourself for your diligence.

 

Dave Arnold’s Egg-Cooking Chart, as it appeared in Lucky Peach Magazine:

Egg Chart USE