How could I say no to that? Even though I have been in Spain for less than a week, and I am still living from a suitcase more or less camping out in a house strewn with unpacked furniture…and even though I only have a few weeks to get settled and get the new retreat center kitchen together, equipment purchased, people organized, supplies ordered…
How could I say no? So we walked through the olive orchard (we have 350 trees!), over the neighboring wheat fields and to the god-only-knows-how-old crumbling ruin to which I look out upon from my bedroom window each morning. They call it The Convent. It is huge and roofless, with arched windows in the tower that look out over miles of surrounding countryside, including our property, Villamartin, Prado del Rey, and Arcos de la Frontera, a few the famous Andalusian white villages.
Inside, the entire ruin is completely full of waste-deep dark green stinging nettles! Armed with (almost-thick-enough) gloves, we harvest the lovely, giant, tender nettle leaves from the one shady corner, carefully picking just the leaves. Nettle flowers contain an irritant to the urinary tract, but the leaves and stems are surprisingly rich in protein (up to 25% dry weight) and full of iron, potassium, manganese, calcium, as well as vitamins A and C. Steamed, they are very tasty… like a soft, rich, extra-green tasting spinach.
Krishana, who I come to understand is a bit of a celebrity gardener on Martha’s Vineyard, has taken it upon herself to create a giant organic vegetable garden for the Suryalila Retreat Center kitchen. In the two months since I was last here, has miraculously transformed about an acre of what looked to be hopelessly barren, rocky, dry soil into rows and rows of sprouting, peeking, microgreen potential! I mean, we are talking about rows of tatsoi, mizuna, spicy braising mixes, 3 or 4 types of kale, chioggia and bull’s blood beets… (wait – is that even vegetarian?). We are planting huge amounts of crazy gourmet vegetables, flowers, and herbs- some of which I have never worked with so I can’t wait until they all come up!
I have to say that Krishana is also the kind of person who is super fun, and who will always be getting you into trouble. I have known her for two days and already I know this – yesterday we were chased around by the local supermarket police, got almost lost several times trying to find our way back from town, and arrived back and the kitchen at 7pm which is when I should have had dinner finished. And now we are climbing through barbed wire fences to get to the elusive nettle patch when we are probably both supposed to be doing something more responsible… how great is that!
So yes, I am finally here in Andalusia Spain! I will be here for 6 months to a year to start, setting up the Suryalila kitchen, cooking, blogging and, I suspect, soon embarking on a crash course in organic gardening. The property already has loads of fruit trees (lemons, tangerines, figs, cherry, peaches, apricots, quince and the Sevilla oranges) not to mention loads of olive trees and some almond trees, which are just starting to blossom. And now Krishana has planted almost an acre of organic vegetables which should take care of most of our veggie needs for most of the year. If not… well, there just happens to be an organic farming collective just 15 minutes away. Folks, we are going to eat well this year, so if you have ever harbored any fantasies about roaming the Andalusian countryside, picking oranges and almonds off the trees, drinking good (cheap!) Spanish wine, maybe doing a little yoga or horseback riding…all while enjoying amazingly fresh local organic gourmet cuisine… you might think about coming for a visit to Suryalila while I am here.
So, in celebration of our almost 1/4 acre of newly planted potatoes and to continue the gnocchi theme, here is recipe for potato gnocchi – the all day, even-though-it’s-not-Saturday type. We started with over 5 kg of potatoes, and after feeding a very enthusiastic crowd of 10, I have enough frozen for at least one more meal, maybe two. This recipe I adapted from Michael Chiarello’s potato gnocchi recipe, because it seemed to have a higher ratio of eggs than most. Did I mention that the fruit orchard is also a huge chicken yard, housing nearly 100 birds – chicken, geese, turkeys, and peacocks? We are now bringing about two dozen eggs a day, and because I don’t use a lot of eggs or dairy in my cooking, they are starting to pile up. (My new challenge this year with be in managing abundance!)
So here is a great potato gnocchi recipe, to which I added the bounty of our our wild nettle harvest, with the result being the most lovely plump little green flecked dumplings you could ever imagine. Delicious and totally worth the work!
Wild Nettle Gnocchi for about 24
- 10 pounds potatoes
- 2 -3 cups coarse or kosher salt (not a typo)
- 15 egg yolks
- 5 cups all purpose flour
- 4 cups fresh nettle leaves, without stems or seeds
- Freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 425°
Blanch the nettles in about an inch of generously salted water. Drain, cool, squeeze dry and chop coarsely.
Wash and bake the potatoes on a layer of course salt for 45 minutes or so until very tender, then peel the potatoes while still hot, being careful not to get too much salt into the whites. You can save the salt to use in the next batch. Press the potatoes through a mill or grate, (or mash by hand if you are ok with something a bit more rustic and lumpy – this is what I did and it was great). Taste for salt and add some if they don’t taste like… well, mashed potatoes. I found that after the salt baking and messy peeling process I did not need to add any more salt, but you are probably a neater cook than I am.
If the potatoes are still screaming hot, spread out to cool a bit so the yolks don’t cook, then, using a fork, gently work the eggs yolks into the warm but not hot potatoes, cutting them in and keeping it all as fluffy as you can. Dump a couple cups of flour on a worktable, top with your potato mixture and gently work in most of the flour, using your knuckles and hands to gently work and fold it in, (without really kneading it though). Scatter the chopped nettles over the dough and gently fold in a few times to partially integrate, leaving it a bit flecky. It’s nice to have bits of green here and there.
You may not need all the flour here, and you may need a bit more, but go for less if possible. This part is really “by feel” and its a great feeling so enjoy it! You should have something that is just barely a dough, and that you can roll into ropes as long as it is very well covered in flour. Split the dough into 4 pieces, and pat each piece into a 1 inch think rectangle. Slice 1 inch pieces off and roll them between your palms into 1/2 inch ropes, then cut again into 1 inch logs. You can leave these as little dumplings, or roll them off a fork, Italian Granny style…
Keep in a single layer on a well floured sheet-pan until ready to cook or freeze. If you are freezing, just put the whole pan in the freezer and bag up the gnocchi when frozen solid.
Cook gnocchi in small batches in boiling salted water for 1 -2 minutes after they bob to the surface of the pot. Drain well and toss in a pan with very good olive oil or butter and a little Parmesan, salt, and pepper, or serve with your favorite sauce.
About halfway through the process, I realized I had someone who did not eat wheat, but luckily I had a bit of potato left over so so I whipped together a gluten free gnocchi using rice flour. It worked amazingly well! Makes me want to try with corn flour, spelt, etc…
Gluten Free Wild Nettle Gnocchi for 2
- 2 cups salt-baked, mashed potatoes (see above)
- 1 cup rice flour
- 1 large egg plus 1 yolk
- 1/4 cup cooked, squeezed and chopped nettles (see above)
- pinch of salt if necessary
Make gnocchi as show above, but don’t worry about overworking the dough… you can’t. These will be a bit more delicate to cook, so its best to keep them in a simple log or pillow shape, rather than rolling them off the fork which makes them want to fall apart. Enjoy!