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A Feast of Weeds

A Literary Guide to Foraging and Cooking Wild Edible Plants

Luigi Ballerini (Author), Gianpiero W. Doebler (Translator), Ada De Santis (Contributor), Giuliano Della Casa (Illustrator)

Available worldwide
READ AN EXCERPT

Hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN: 9780520270343
October 2012
$34.95, £24.95
The primal experience of gathering is inscribed in every human’s DNA, and this book invites us to look beyond the refrigerator and cupboard to the abundance of wild edible plants that can be found and harvested everywhere. Part reference guide, part cookbook, A Feast of Weeds encourages readers to forage diverse natural environments for food, even in our city parks and streets.

Luigi Ballerini shows tremendous breadth and depth of knowledge in an opening literary and historical analysis that explains how we have come to eat and cultivate wild plants. Each chapter that follows is devoted to a single ingredient—greens such as nettles, fennel, mint, chicory, and dandelion; and fruits such as berries, pomegranate, and prickly pear. Ballerini’s delightful commentary helps foragers recognize, gather, and cook their harvest. Delicious and straightforward recipes from Southern Italy bring out the flavor and wholesomeness of each ingredient, highlighting the peasant roots of each dish.
Preface: Instructions for Using This Book

Introduction: Eating Greens Does Not Mean Grazing

Bay Leaves
Blackberries
Blueberries
Borage
Capers
Chamomile
Cipollini
Crested Wartycabbage
Daisy
False Acacia
Mallow
Milk Thistle
Mint
Myrtle Berries
Nettles
Pine Nuts
Pomegranate
Prickly Pear
Purslane
Red Poppy
Samphire
Sow Thistle
Strawberry Tree/Arbutus
Thyme
Wallrocket
Wild Arugula
Wild Asparagus
Wild Chicory
Wild Fennel
Wild Raspberries
Wild Strawberries

Notes
Recipe Index
Luigi Ballerini is Professor of Italian at the University of California, Los Angeles. Among his many books are The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book, published by UC Press.
“In his small, taut, very readable ‘A Feast of Weeds,’ Luigi Ballerini discovers the virtues of many weeds and foragable non-weeds, from bay leaves to wild strawberries, as well as milk thistle, samphire, wild asparagus and the wonderfully named crested wartycabbage. Don’t miss the recipe for wartycabbage frittata.”—The Daily Meal
"The author weaves captivating stories."—Marin Independent Journal
"A dazzling display of humanistic erudition, wit, and practical culinary advice. Ballerini's living herbarium reinitiates modern readers living in the concrete manswarm into the joys of foraging, gathering, and savoring herbs, flowers, and berries. Its wide-ranging historical context, a veritable documentary of poets and chroniclers of past and present, is a learned celebration of nature's bounty. Practical and flavorful recipes for each plant transport the 'weeds' from the field to the palate and enhance a narrative enriched by splendid complementary footnotes."—Albert Sonnenfeld, Series Director, Arts of the Table

"Weeds indeed. A guide as witty as he is erudite, Luigi Ballerini has given us a remarkable compendium of the wild greens, along with their flowers and fruits, that people have foraged and eaten for millennia. Once the food of the poor, such ingredients are now in high demand. Gathering greens both familiar—such as mint or borage—and obscure—milk thistle and wallrocket—Ballerini draws upon a diverse cast of authors to attest or dispute their real or alleged medicinal powers. Just as important, he never neglects to suggest how they taste or to present fine recipes so that we can savor them for ourselves."—Carol Field, author of The Italian Baker

"The scholar and poet Luigi Ballerini has given us a mouthwatering treasure of inventive Italian recipes for foraged wild plants adapted for the American locavore kitchen (including ten for borage alone, as well as nettle and purslane frittatas, and prickly pear risotto). This elegantly illustrated volume is peppered with humor and tastefully seasoned with a wealth of cultural, historical, and scientific sources and information. A Feast of Weeds is food for both the palate and the mind."—Jean-Claude Carron, University of California, Los Angeles

Nettles

Urtica dioica; Italian: ortica

The reputation of the nettle as an invasive plant that is annoying to the epidermis (covered as it is with hairs containing formic acid) is solidly documented from antiquity to our times. The Latin name itself says that it is best to keep your distance from it, coming from the Latin urere, which means "to burn" and "to cause burning." Among others, Odo de Meung (a.k.a. Macer Floridus), a tenth-century herbalist, affirms this in his De viribus herbarum (On the virtue of herbs):1 "a name that seems perfectly fitting given that it burns the fingers of those who hold it in their hands." Nicholas Culpeper wittily believes it unnecessary to describe them, since "they may be found by feeling in the darkest night" (Complete Herbal, 127).

But it is not just a matter of dermatology. If someone says of a piece of land that nettles grow there, that means that no one has passed through for some time. To reinforce this notion, there is a saying that when an Italian priest gets fed up with his profession, he chooses a place with nettles to cast off his cassock (ha gettato le toniche alle ortiche). Such space includes uncultivated land, particularly beside dilapidated dwellings, sheepfolds, and pens.

On the other hand, there is no lack of entries affirming that nettles are capable of every sort of benefit. According to more than a few ancient, protomodern, and modern physicians, they have hemostatic, antirheumatic, healing, anti-inflammatory, and antianemic properties, and they reinvigorate the scalp.

As usual, Pliny is full of encouraging news as well as radiant and authoritative advice: "What can be more hateful than the nettle?2 Yet this plant, to say nothing of the oil that ... is made from it in Egypt, simply abounds in remedies. Nicander assures us that its seed counteracts hemlock and also the poison of fungi and of mercury. Appollodorus says that [combined] with the broth of boiled tortoise it is good for salamander bites and as an antidote for henbane, snakebites, and scorpion stings. Moreover, its pungent bitterness itself, by the mere touch, forces to subside swollen uvulas, restoring prolapsus of the uterus, and of the anus of babies. ... The same plant, with the addition of salt, heals dog bites" (Naturalis historia, XXII, 15, 31).

The naturalist Phanias (an author quoted among the sources for Pliny's books XXI-XXVI) praised the nettle highly, declaring that, eaten cooked or as a preserve, it is good "for the trachea, cough, bowel catarrh, stomach, superficial abscesses, parotid swellings and chilblains, that with oil it is sudorific, boiled with shellfish a laxative, with barley water it clears the chest and promotes menstruation, and mixed with salt it arrests creeping sores. A use is also found for the juice. An extract applied to the forehead checks bleeding at the nose." And like a perfect apothecary, he adds that the seed of nettles from Alexandria is prized above all others. "For all these purposes, though the milder and tender nettles are efficacious, the well-known wild variety [Urtica urens] is particularly so. ... Certain of our countrymen have distinguished nettles by their season, stating that the disease is cured if the root of the autumn nettle is used as an amulet for tertian ague, provided that when [it] is dug up the names of the patients be uttered, and it be said for what man it is taken up and who his parents are; the same method is effective in quartan agues" (Ibid., XXII, 15, 35 and 16, 38).

Much less fantastical and certainly more of a party pooper is Hildegard von Bingen, who, in chapter 100 of her Physica, holds that eating raw nettles is harmful (but who would ever get the idea of putting it in their mouth without having cooked it first?). If, however, it is gathered as soon as it emerges from the earth and then cooked, it is an excellent food. What's more, it frees the stomach of mucous and the intestines of worms. To obtain this latter result, you must proceed as follows: In a pan, boil equal parts of nettle juice and mullein [another flowering herb common in the Mediterranean] and walnut leaves or bark. Add a little vinegar and lot of honey, skim it, and then bring it back to a boil. After it has boiled a little more, the brew is ready. Drink the potion for fifteen days in a row, a little after fasting and in abundance after meals. Those who have lost their memory can also avail themselves of the nettle's properties to get it back. You must make a sauce out of it, which you add to olive oil. Then, on going to bed, you spread the mixture on your temples and on your chest. If you remember to do this often, the lack of memory decreases.

Of the hundreds of treatments based on nettles that Culpeper discusses, among the most attractive is the one in which "seed or leaves bruised and put into the nostrils stays the bleeding of them, and takes away the flesh growing in them called polypus" (Complete Herbal,127). It is also a reliable remedy for dog bites, gangrene, cancerous ulcers, nosebleeds, and numerous illnesses of the respiratory system (particularly effective in the case of the latter is an infusion of nettles with the addition of honey).

In Herbs in Cooking by Maria and Nikos Psilakis,3 we read that in Crete, in past (but not remote) times, an antidandruff soap was made with nettles. Beyond curing nearly everything (and facilitating coitus, both human and animal), some rumors, still popular just a few decades ago, held that it was extraordinarily effective against meteorological dangers. "In Tyrol, when a thunderstorm would break," writes Alfredo Cattabiani in his Florario, "locals would throw some nettles into the fire to keep away every danger, but particularly lighting, because according to one belief popular throughout central Europe, a thunderbolt never strikes nettle plants. They did the same thing in the town of Lugnacco, in the region of Canavese, convinced that it would keep away the witches that were believed to cause 'storm vapor.'"4

With macerated nettles, you can make particularly strong fabrics, tablecloths, sheets, and a paper of no mean quality. This was done in Scotland until relatively recently.

Nettles are also popular in cooking, formerly in the cuisine of the poor5 and today in that of the rich. The shoots and the tips, before flowering, are used in the dough for green tagliatelle and lasagna noodles (both, preferably, with egg) and as an ingredient in soups, risottos, spaghetti, and vegetable pies. They are also good tossed in a skillet and can be used in place of basil in pesto. Apicius, who dedicates only one recipe to nettles (for a type of frittata; De re coquinaria, IV, II, 36, Patina de urtica), talks about it in the previous book (Ibid., III, XVII) with a detachment that, if it is not arrogant, is certainly chauvinist: "Urticam feminam sole in ariete posito adversus aegritudinem sume si voles" (The female nettles, when the sun is in the position of the Aries, is supposed to render valuable services against ailments of various kinds). Taking a cue from that feminam, someone truculently translated it into English as "stinging." In reality, the species commonly known as the stinging nettle is U. dioica, a dioecious variety (that is, with masculine or feminine flowers).6 On the other hand, U. urens is monoecious and has both masculine and feminine flowers on the same plant. This is the one that burns the most. The trichomes (hairs), which break on touch, release a liquid containing irritating substances that include histamine and, as we have said, formic acid.

The gathering period for nettles runs from December to May, though in moist soils it runs all year.

Nettle Frittata

Serves 4

5 ounces (150 g) nettle leaves

2 1/2 teaspoons (15 g) coarse salt

4 eggs

5 teaspoons (10 g) grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon (1 g) ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon (2 g) fine salt

2 tablespoons (30 ml) plus 4 teaspoons (20 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

Don rubber kitchen gloves (raw nettles sting and trigger a lot of itching) and carefully wash the nettle leaves. Pour 2 1/2 quarts (2.5 l) water into a 5-quart (5-l) pot, place over high heat, cover, and bring to a boil. When the water begins to boil, add the coarse salt and nettles and cook for no more than 1 minute. Remove the nettles from the water with a wire skimmer, draining well. Chop the nettles roughly.

In a bowl, beat the eggs with a fork for about 1 minute. Add the cheese, pepper, and fine salt and mix together well.

Pour 4 teaspoons (20 ml) of the oil into a 9-inch (23-cm) nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the nettles and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Add the contents of the bowl to the skillet, reduce the heat to low, and cook for about 3 minutes. Uncover and slowly pour in the remaining 2 tablespoons (30 ml) oil, adding it in a swirling motion. Lift the edges of the frittata with a wooden spatula to making sure it is not sticking, then cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and slide the frittata onto a plate (this frittata is not turned). The frittata may be eaten either hot or cold.

Nettles with Oil and Lemon

Serves 4

3 1/3 pounds (1.5 kg) tender nettle tops and leaves

2 tablespoons (40 g) coarse salt

extra-virgin olive oil, to taste

lemon juice, to taste

Don rubber kitchen gloves (raw nettles sting and trigger a lot of itching) and carefully wash the nettle tops and leaves, discarding the stems. Pour 4 quarts (4 l) water into an 8-quart (4-l) pot, cover, and place over high heat. When the water begins to boil, add the salt. When the water starts to boil again, add the nettles tops and leaves, re-cover, and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and remove the nettles from the water with a wire skimmer, draining well. Dry the nettles thoroughly so that not even a drop of water remains. Season at the table with the oil and lemon juice.

Potato Pie with Nettles

Serves 6

For the dough

3 1/3 pounds (1.5 kg) potatoes, of uniform size

1 egg

1 1/2 teaspoons (10 g) fine salt

1 teaspoon (2 g) ground black pepper

For the filling

14 ounces (400 g) nettle tops and leaves

4 teaspoons (25 g) coarse salt

1 1/4 cups (300 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup (35 g) thinly sliced spring onions (white part only)

3/4 teaspoon (2 g) ground red pepper

3 1/2 teaspoons (10 g) capers in brine, rinsed

1/3 cup (40 g) pitted black olives

2 tablespoons (20 g) dried bread crumbs

To prepare the dough: Put the potatoes into a 4-quart (4-l) pot, add water to cover by 1 inch (2.5 cm), cover, and place over medium heat. When the water begins to boil, cook the potatoes until tender, about 50 minutes. To test if the potatoes are ready, pierce a potato with a fork. If the fork slides easily into the potato, they are ready. Do not overcook them or they will absorb too much water. Drain the potatoes and let them cool just until they can be handled, then peel them and let them cool. Work the potatoes with your hands until a uniform, compact dough forms. Add the egg, salt, and pepper and work the dough for a few more minutes until it is smooth and uniform. Cover with a kitchen towel.

To prepare the filling: Don rubber kitchen gloves (raw nettles sting and trigger a lot of itching) and carefully wash the nettle tops and leaves, discarding the stems. Pour 2 quarts (2 l) water into a 4-quart (4-l) pot, cover, and place over high heat. When the water begins to boil, add the salt. When the water starts to boil again, add the nettles tops and leaves, re-cover, and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and remove the nettles from the water with a wire skimmer, draining well.

Pour 2/3 cup (150 ml) of the oil into a 9-inch (23-cm) skillet and place over low heat. Add the spring onions and cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Add the red pepper and the nettle tops and leaves and cook, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon, for 5 minutes. Finally, stir in the capers, turn off the heat, and stir in the olives.

To assemble: Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Grease the bottom and sides of a baking dish 11 inches (28 cm) in diameter and 2 inches (5 cm) deep with 1/3 cup (75 ml) of the oil. Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a ball. Pour 1/3 cup (75 ml) of the remaining oil into a bowl, and use the oil to grease your palm. Working with half of the dough, pinch off small quantities of the dough, press each portion in your greased palm, and then put them in the prepared baking dish, placing them side by side and leveling the surface with your greased hand. Sprinkle the dough evenly with half of the bread crumbs, then press gently in place. Lay the nettles mixture evenly over this crumb-topped base. Cover the nettles with the remaining potato dough in the same manner, again leveling it well with your greased hand. Sprinkle the top potato layer with the remaining bread crumbs.

Bake until the top is lightly golden, about 50 minutes. If the surface is still pale after 50 minutes, turn the oven to broil and continue to cook for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool (so that it sets better) for about 15 minutes before serving.

Polenta with Nettles

Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds (700 g) nettle tops and leaves

6 1/2 tablespoons (100 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup (50 g) finely chopped spring onions (white part only) or white onion

1 tablespoon (15 g) coarse salt

1 1/2 teaspoons (3 g) ground black pepper

2 cups (300 g) polenta (cornmeal)

1/3 cup (40 g) grated Parmesan cheese

Don rubber kitchen gloves (raw nettles sting and trigger a lot of itching) and carefully wash the nettle tops and leaves, discarding the stems.

Pour the oil into an 8-quart (8-l) pot and place over very low heat for 1 minute. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 15 minutes. Make sure that they don't burn. Add the nettles and stir well with a spoon and a fork until the nettles and onions are well mixed and the flavors blended. Raise the heat to medium, add one-third of the salt, and stir again. Repeat with the remaining salt in two additions, stirring after each addition. When the nettles seem properly "bruised," add the pepper and stir well once again. Cover the pan and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover, stir, add 6 1/2 cups (1.5 l) water, cover again, and bring to a boil. When the water begins to boil, uncover the pan and pour in the polenta, letting it rain down very slowly while whisking vigorously to make sure that no lumps form. Everything must be mixed together perfectly. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for about 50 minutes, never forgetting to stir. The polenta is ready when it pulls away from the sides of the pan and no longer tastes grainy. Turn off the heat, sprinkle the polenta with the Parmesan, stir in the cheese, and serve.

Nettle Ravioli

Serves 4

For the dough

1 2/3 cups (200 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

2 eggs

For the filling and sauce

1 1/2 pounds (700 g) nettle tops and leaves

4 tablespoons (60 g) coarse salt

1 cup (100 g) grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup (100 g) coarsely shredded Emmentaler cheese

1 egg

freshly grated nutmeg

5 or 6 fresh sage leaves

4 tablespoons (60 g) butter

To make the dough: Mound the flour on a marble or wood work surface and hollow out a crater in the center. Crack the eggs into the crater and beat them with a fork until blended. Then, using the fork, draw the flour from the walls of the crater little by little into the eggs. Once the mixture becomes pasty, work it with your hands until a soft, compact dough forms. Divide the dough in half, shape each half into a ball, and then flatten each ball into a thick disk. Place the disks under a bowl or wrap in plastic wrap and let rest for about 1 hour.

To make the filling: Don rubber kitchen gloves (raw nettles sting and trigger a lot of itching) and carefully wash the nettle tops and leaves, discarding the stems. Pour 3 quarts (3 l) water into an 8-quart (8-l) pot, cover, and place over high heat. When the water begins to boil, add 2 tablespoons (30 g) of the salt. When the water starts to boil again, add the nettle tops and leaves, re-cover, and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and remove the nettles from the water with a wire skimmer, draining well. Let the nettles cool, then, with your hands, form them into a tight ball and squeeze firmly so that no water remains. Using kitchen shears or a knife, finely cut the nettles.

In a bowl, combine the nettles, 2/3 cup (65 g) of the Parmesan, all of the Emmentaler, the egg, and a few gratings of nutmeg and mix well.

To make the ravioli: Lightly dust a work surface with 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons (3 to 4 g) flour and place half of the dough on it. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a paper-thin sheet. (Or, roll out the dough on a pasta machine.) Fold the pasta sheet in half, creasing lightly, then unfold the sheet flat again. Starting from the line of the fold, spoon small mounds of the filling onto half of the dough, arranging them in rows and spacing the mounds about 1 inch (2.5 cm) apart. When you have finished, cover the mound-topped dough with the other half of the dough and, with your fingers, press down firmly around the mounds to remove any air pockets. Now, with a pastry wheel, cut between the rows crosswise and then lengthwise to create square ravioli. Sprinkle a large tray with 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons (3 or 4 g) flour, and transfer the ravioli to the tray. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling and add the ravioli to the tray.

To cook the ravioli and make the sauce: Pour 3 quarts (3 l) water into the same 8-qt (8-l) pot, cover, and place over high heat. When the water beings to boil, add the remaining 2 tablespoons (30 g) salt. When the water begins to boil again, drop in the ravioli and cook until their rise to the surface, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, incise the sage leaves with a fingernail so they will release their essence. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over high heat. When it begins to foam, add the sage leaves and heat for 1 minute, then remove from the heat.

Drain the ravioli carefully in a colander and place them onto a serving platter. Pour the melted butter with the sage leaves over the ravioli, then sprinkle with the remaining 1/3 (35 g) Parmesan. Stir gently and serve.

Nettle Risotto

Serves 4

1/2 pound (250 g) nettle tops and leaves

Pour 6 1/2 cups (1.5 l) vegetable broth

coarse salt

1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 3/4 cups (350 g) Vialone Nano or Arborio rice

1/4 cup (60 ml) dry white wine

4 tablespoons (60 g) butter

1/3 cup (40 g) grated Parmesan cheese

Don rubber kitchen gloves (raw nettles sting and trigger a lot of itching) and carefully wash the nettle tops and leaves, discarding the stems. Pour the broth into a 3-quart (3-l) pot, place over medium-high heat, and bring to a salt. Season to taste with salt. The rice will be cooked in this broth, which must be kept at a simmer. Meanwhile, pour the oil into a 4-quart (4-l) pot and place over very low heat. Add the onion and cook for about 3 minutes. Take care that the onion does not burn. Raise the heat to medium, add the nettles, and continue to cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon for another 5 minutes to toast it. Pour in the wine and continue to stir until it has evaporated.

Now begin to add the broth, a little at a time, stirring after each addition and allowing it to evaporate before adding more. After 15 to 20 minutes of cooking, turn off the heat. At this point the rice should be tender but still slightly firm at the center of each grain. Add the butter and Parmesan and stir so everything is well mixed. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Rice Sformato with Nettles

Serves 6

For the nettles

1 1/ pounds (700 g) nettle tops and leaves

1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup (50 g) finely chopped sliced spring onions (white part only) or white onion

1 1/2 teaspoons (9 g) fine salt

For the rice

5 cups (1.2 l) vegetable broth

coarse salt

6 1/2 tablespoons (100 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup (30 g) finely chopped spring onions (white part only) or white onion

1 3/4 cups (350 g) Arborio or Vialone Nano rice

2 tablespoons (30 g) butter

1/3 cup (40 g) grated Parmesan cheese

For the béchamel

3 1/2 tablespoons (100 g) butter

1/3 cup (50 g) all-purpose flour

2 cups (500 ml) whole milk, heated

3/4 teaspoon fine salt

freshly grated nutmeg, to taste

To assemble

4 teaspoons (20 g) butter

3 tablespoons (20 g) dried bread crumbs

2/3 cup (80 g) plus 21/2 tablespoons (15 g) grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup (100 g) coarsely shredded Emmentaler cheese

1 to 2 ladlefuls vegetable broth

To prepare the nettles: Don rubber kitchen gloves (raw nettles sting and trigger a lot of itching) and carefully wash the nettle tops and leaves, discarding the stems. Squeeze the nettles well with your hands (without removing the gloves!) to remove as much water as possible. Pour the oil into a 12-inch skillet and place over low heat for 3 minutes. Add the onions and cook until golden,7 to 8 minutes. Divide the nettles into thirds and lay one-third in the skillet. Raise the heat to high, leave the nettles for 1 minute, then, using a spoon and a fork, stir and turn the nettles for 1 minute, adding about one-third of the fine salt. Repeat with the remaining nettles and fine salt in two additions. All of this takes place with the skillet uncovered, naturally, which allows the water to evaporate completely. Remove from the heat and let cool.

To prepare the rice: Pour the vegetable broth into a 3-quart (3-l) pot, place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. When the water begins to boil, add coarse salt to taste. The rice will be cooked in this broth, which must be kept at a simmer. Meanwhile, pour the oil into a 4-quart (4-l) pot and place over very low heat. Add the onions and cook for about 3 minutes. Take care that they do not burn. Raise the heat to medium, add the rice, and stir with a wooden spoon for another 5 minutes to toast it.

Now begin to add the broth, a little at a time, stirring after each addition and allowing it to evaporate before adding more. After 15 to 20 minutes of cooking, turn off the heat. At this point the rice should be tender but still slightly firm at the center of each grain and all'onda-in other words, firm but not dry. Add the butter and Parmesan and stir so everything is well mixed. Remove from the heat.

To prepare the béchamel: Melt the butter in a 2-quart (2-l) saucepan over medium heat. It shouldn't take any longer than 1 minute. Remove from the heat, add the flour, and stir vigorously with a whisk so that no lumps form. Return the pan to medium heat and stir constantly for another 2 minutes. Pour in the milk while whisking vigorously. Add the fine salt and a few gratings of nutmeg, then abandon the whisk and stir with a wooden spoon for another 10 minutes. The mixture should have the consistency of thick cream. Turn off the heat and let cool, stirring often to prevent a skin from forming on the surface.

To assemble the sformato: Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Generously grease the bottom and sides of an 11-by-7-inch (28-by-18-cm) baking dish with 2-inch (5-cm) sides with 2 teaspoons (20 g) of the butter. Add half of the bread crumbs, swirling the dish to distribute them evenly on the bottom and sides. Layer half of the rice on the bottom of the dish, then top with the nettles. Sprinkle evenly with 2/3 cup (80 g) of the Parmesan cheese and then with the Emmentaler. Pour the béchamel evenly over the surface and then the broth. Stir the remaining rice once or twice and spoon it on top, flattening it well. Combine the remaining bread crumbs and the remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons (15 g) Parmesan and sprinkle evenly over the surface. Dot the top with the remaining 2 teaspoons (10 g) butter.

Bake until piping hot and the top is golden, 40 to 45 minutes. Let rest for a few minutes before serving.

Spaghetti with Nettles

Serves 4

14 ounces (400 g) nettle tops and leaves

6 1/2 tablespoons (100 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic

3/4 teaspoon (2 g) ground red pepper

2 tablespoons (40 g) coarse salt

1 pound (450 g) spaghetti

1/3 cup (30 g) grated pecorino cheese

Don rubber kitchen gloves (raw nettles sting and trigger a lot of itching) and carefully wash the nettle tops and leaves, discarding the stems. Pour the oil into a 12-inch skillet. Cut the garlic clove in half lengthwise and, if necessary, remove the shoot. Finely crush the garlic, add to the oil, and place over low heat for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, let cool, and add the red pepper.

Pour 4 quarts (4 l) water into an 8-quart (8-l) pot, cover, and place over high heat. When the water begins to boil, add the salt. When the water begins to boil again, toss in the spaghetti, cook for 6 minutes, and then toss in the nettles and cook for 1 minute longer. Scoop out 5 tablespoons (75 ml) of the cooking water and immediately drain the spaghetti and nettles in a colander.

Add the spaghetti and nettles, the reserved cooking water, and the cheese to the skillet, place over medium heat, and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring everything with a spoon and fork until well mixed. Serve hot.

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