Nettle quiche

My first bite of nettle quiche was a take-out slice from Duncan’s Garage Bakery and Cafe. Every mouthful was a culinary revelation. Dark chunks of earthy greenness couched among creamy eggs, mushrooms, salty feta and buttery, flaky pastry –  this quiche bewitched. 

It did something else.  It tapped into my brain’s ever-pulsing cooking lobes, prompting synapses to pop like corn. I had to make this. 

The next day, my beleaguered husband is inevitably involved. We’re on Stony Hill Trail and I’ve sniffed out some nettles. Stinging nettles. David is holding a large plastic bag open as widely as he can, while I clip and clip, wearing gloves and laughing. These wild plants are the kind I’ve seen posted on Instagram inside rich, green, layered cakes slathered with icing. The kind that can leave a prickly sensation on your skin for hours, if not days. David is leaning as far away from me as he can,  knowing the sting from this nettle too well. Years ago, he’d picked an innocent bunch of leaves to vigorously wipe bicycle grease from his hands only to inflict a painful 48-hour reaction. I notice a sideways grimace from him as I stuff each bright green bundle perilously close to his bare hands and arms. 

IMG_9836Once home, I carry my two bulging forest bags into the kitchen. I climb a step stool and reach for the tallest pasta pot I can safely lift down without breaking my neck. Once boiling and salted, the water is ready for my nettles to take the plunge.  I put my muddy garden gloves back on. I’d wear clean oven gloves were it not for the dexterity the tongs required.  

In and out. Quickly. Each plunge was a messy affair, stems and leaves flying left and right as I pushed them into the water (not unlike squirming live crabs or lobsters who have seen the same fate.) But nettles die instantly. Each thorn is annulled in a nano-second ready to be pulled out limp from the black-grey water, as I inhale the rich, vegetal aroma. 

“Like spinach, but better,” opines my fellow spinach-lover as we dine.   

That’s after we pick up four dozen eggs at our favourite farm stand on Richard’s Trail.  Promise Valley always has their red cooler out, usually packed high with egg cartons and a big, blue freezer block wedged inside. Only once have we found the cooler empty,  our disappointment dashed by the appearance of the farm’s two pet goats pressing up against the fence their long, silky ears and wet noses begging for a scratch.

Just a week before that fateful nettle-filled bite at Duncan’s Garage, I was invited by dairy farmer Caroline Nagtegaal into Promise Valley’s hen house to witness “afternoon chores.”

“Want it?” asked this tiny blond woman in very tall boots as she smiled and giggled, offering me the handles of a large, wired egg basket.  We were standing with the hens, the air a cackling, bawk-ing din, intermingled with saw dust and chicken shit.  

IMG_0224“I’ve been doing this since I was five, but I still yelp when they nip me.”

Her hand was tucked under the rump of a Highline Brown, sitting proud and unruffled in one of a long line of boxes. Some boxes were empty, others occupied. All were lined with straw, tamped down into a nest-like well. Not all of Promise Valley’s 190 hens were inside that afternoon, but Rocky the Rescue Rooster was standing among a particularly talkative clutch collected around my ankles.   

IMG_0227I chickened-out and made a tentative reach into an unoccupied box to find five or six abandoned eggs.  Brown and beige, these eggs were room-temperature to touch except one that radiated such warmth, it must have been freshly laid. 

Of course, that wasn’t my first instinct, holding that egg.  It felt like eggs I have cooled after hard-boiling, warm but ready to shell. Seeing the hen house, helping Caroline collect the eggs as she does every afternoon every single day, was a privilege for this city girl who is always thinking about food, its whereabouts and how it can be transformed into something delicious. 

Like quiche and nettles. 

I reach into the freezer and pull a small bag of dark, green frozen nettles, the product of my nettle forage with David. Each bulging bag’s forest-fresh contents had been flash-boiled, transferred tong-by-tongfull into a large ice bath and drained. I had removed all the stems, squeezed handfuls over the sink to remove excess liquid and bagged up my nettle cache for the freezer. 

Asparagus was roasting in the oven while chopped onions sizzled in butter on the stove-top.  I grated a chunk of white cheddar and beat half a dozen of Caroline’s eggs.  I dumped the eggs into a four-cup glass measure containing milk, seasoned with salt, pepper, cayenne and freshly grated nutmeg. 

I defrosted half a nettle bag’s contents in a bowl of cold water, then dispersed little mounds  along the bottom of my Einkorn and Red Fife pastry covered with soft, fragrant onions, followed by a showering of cooled roasted asparagus and grated cheddar. 

Once the quiche was safely tucked inside the oven, sitting on a rimmed baking sheet in case of  any run-off, I could relax and dream. Promise Valley is making the transition to organic and will soon be offering Guernsey milk and cream-top yogurt at their farm stand. When they open their doors I will be first in line, conjuring up more tasty recipes to share here at Mado Food.

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Nettle and Asparagus Quiche

If you don’t have stinging nettles substitute with spinach and pretend. 

2 tbsp butter

1/2 large cooking onion, chopped 

1 cup defrosted frozen nettles

6 spears cooked asparagus, sliced into 1- inch pieces

1 cup grated old cheddar

6 eggs, beaten

1 cup milk or cream

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/8 tsp cayenne

Freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Heat butter in a frying pan and sauté onions until soft and fragrant. Set aside and cool. 

Arrange onions, nettles, asparagus and 3/4 cup of the grated cheddar on the bottom of the pie pastry crust that you have made (see recipe below) or bought frozen.

In a medium bowl or 4-cup measure, combine milk, eggs, salt, nutmeg, cayenne and freshly ground pepper.  Pour into the pie crust and top with remaining cheese.  

Bake on a rimmed baking sheet in the middle of the oven for 50-60 min or until the centre of the quiche is golden brown, set and the middle won’t jiggle when gently shook.  Remove from the oven and wait 10-20  minutes before serving (to further set and slice up well).

 

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Einkorn and Red Fife Pastry

This flavour-forward pastry dough is adapted from Flourist and will taste best if you use freshly ground, local grain. If you are stuck with supermarket-only options, use whole wheat pastry flour instead of Red Fife and white pastry flour instead of Einkorn and cut down the ice cold water to 1/4-1/2 cup. Yields 1 double crust pie pastry. Freeze the leftover single crust for your next quiche adventure.

1 2⁄3 (230g) cup True Grain Sifted Red Fife Flour

1 cup (138g) cup True Grain Whole Einkorn Flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup (227g) butter, cold and cut into cubes 

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

3/4-1 cup ice cold water, or as needed

Pulse flour and salt In a food processor bowl once or twice to combine. Sprinkle over with cubed butter and process on high for 30 seconds or more, until butter is the size of small peas. Pour vinegar and ice cold water through the tube with the motor running, adding water by the tablespoon until it adheres into a mass. 

Transfer to a large sheet of waxed paper and press the crumbly mess into a round disc. Wrap well and refrigerate two hours or until firm. 

On a lightly floured surface, roll out half of the disc and arrange in a deep (5-cup/1.25L) pie dish.

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Savoury Beet Tartlets

Nothing like plunking a few dice of freshly cooked beets and a crumble of goat cheese into a pastry tart to watch the colour slide and ebb through an egg custard creating these beautiful little appetizers that are almost too pretty to eat.

But you will gobble them up for they pop on the palate even louder than their good looks show off on the platter. 

This is super easy to prepare if you use frozen pie tartlets.

It’s also easy to make your own dough in a food processor.  I like to keep a chunk or two of dough on standby in the freezer, ready to defrost and be at the ready.

David is our in-house pastry chef.  He has the light touch and uber patience needed to create a flaky pretty crust. He also gets the mechanics of lattice work for our Thanksgiving apple pies and stencils actual maple leaves on top.

Wrong season.  We are celebrating summer now and these tartlets require different pastry skills.  David rolled out the dough to 1/8thinch thinness, then cut circles using a small bowl. Each circle is dropped gently into the muffin cup then folded into a rustic round. No crimping. No braids. It helps if each tart has a little ledge, climbing up and over the muffin cup’s edge to hold in all the contents.  

Once you have the pastry ready to fill the tartlets, this project’s flavour is all about the beets and fresh herbs.  Beets are best if you can yank them out of your garden, clean under the garden hose then submerge in hot boiling, salted water. Unlike a stored beet, garden fresh will cook up in half the time. 

Please remember, basil is a beet’s best friend. I like to tuck a chiffonade into every beet salad I compose and was pleased with how complimentary it is as both an ingredient and garnish for these tartlets. 

Beet, Basil and Goat Cheese Tartlets

If making pastry is not your “jam”, use frozen pastry tart shells instead. These pretty little things are perfect for summer appetizers al fresco or weekend brunch.  

 

All Purpose Food Processor Pastry

2 cups        all purpose flour

¼ tspsalt

¾ cup         unsalted butter, cold, cut into pieces

½ cup         ice water, approx.

 

Filling

3 small beets, boiled until tender, cubed

150 g goat cheese, crumbled

3 eggs

1 cup homogenized milk

2 TBS chopped fresh chives

2 TBS chopped fresh basil 

Salt and pepper

 

Combine flour with salt in food processor and pulse to mix. Add butter and whirl on high for 15 seconds or until butter is the size of peas. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add water. Whirl on high until dough clumps. Transfer to a large piece of waxed paper. Form the crumbly dough into a firm mound, about 8 in diameter. Wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hrs before use. 

 

Preheat oven 425 F

 

Whisk together eggs, milk, chives, basil, salt and pepper in a 4 cup liquid measure. 

 

Divide the chilled dough in half and return remaining half to fridge, wrapped well. 

 

On a lightly floured counter roll out the dough. Use an empty bowl with a 4 ½ inch diameter to cut rounds. Gently nestle each round into a muffin cup. Divide beets and goat cheese equally among the tarts. Pour in egg mixture. 

 

Bake in middle of the oven for 20-25 min or until interiors have puffed and pastry is lightly golden. 

 

Serve warm, garnished with fresh basil and edible flowers like nasturtium, chive or borage.

All about eggs

It wasn’t until I was 18 and had declared myself a vegetarian that I learned to love eggs. They were cheap and they were easy. Besides, my mother had gifted me a handy little omelette pan with a Teflon surface and a hinge down the middle. With a little butter, a bowlful of beaten eggs and some grated cheddar, I became a master omelette maker.  You couldn’t really screw up.  I’d cook both sides of the pan until the eggs set, grab the handle and flip right over left to create a covered semi-circle pan with a perfect omelette hidden inside. Voila!

Once I moved to a real omelette pan, without the help of my hinged pan crutch, I discovered the complexity of omelette making. It was the fillings and my overwhelming greed for them, that was my ruin. The more onions, bacon, sausage, veggies and cheese I piled inside, the harder it became to make The Flip.

IMG_2092Truth be told, my problem was the eggs.  I really didn’t like them plain. If I’d practiced with a bowlful of very frothy, very beaten eggs, and had let them slide into a buttery, perfectly heated cast iron pan, they might have had a chance. They just needed time and singularity, so their eggy selves could focus on setting rather than accommodating all those interlopers.

But no.  I wasn’t liking that.

So I moved on to the frittata, which requires no flip and invites a lot of flavour pairings. Tomatoes, basil and goat cheese. Onions, potatoes and gruyere.  Spinach and feta.  Chorizo, sage and fingerling potatoes. The list is endless.  But still, we’re talking eggs which are either perfectly cooked or instantly ruined. The time between the two is a millisecond. I’ve made many a loaded frittata enwrapped in dry, rubbery, unappealing eggs. Ick.

IMG_2088So I moved over to poaching. Again, I was saved by a gizmo.  This time it was my grandmother Nonnie’s poaching pan, a lovely deep, copper bottom saucepan fitted with a rack in which four egg saucers nestle inside.  One fills the pan with water, covers with the egg rack and follows with a lid. Once the water comes to a boil, the hot little saucers are ready to be buttered and loaded with a freshly cracked egg.

Sensible cooks turn off the heat to manage this feat, but I preferred to dab a bit of butter inside each poaching, steaming cup, pick it up and swirl. I’d burnt my fingers doing this for serial years, swearing profuse profanities, believing all short order cookers made similar sacrifices.

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Credit: Nick Nausbaum

Then a plumber set me straight.

He had just repaired a toilet upstairs and was passing through my kitchen during a particularly raucous swearing and poaching event. He shook his head and asked,  “You don’t like to use a fork, huh?”

I shot him such a mean look of incomprehension, I’m not sure why he bothered… but he did.

“Here’s how ya do it,” he said, taking a fork and placing the middle two tines into the slot above each flat lifting surface. Woa, the fork became a handle. This mechanical feature had eluded me my entire poaching career with this pan!

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Credit: Nick Nausbaum

“I like my  yolks well done,” he said as he waved the hot poaching cup perilously close   to my face.

I, too, used to like my yolks dry and thoroughly cooked, encased by a jiggly, gelatinous white. But real egg lovers like their yolks runny, seduced by that golden, buttery elixir as it spreads over toast, rice or potatoes.

Thus, the hash.  Nick told me about his recipe the other day. It’s a hearty start to the day and makes great leftovers.  Besides, the pan is loaded with everything but eggs until the last five minutes.  Nick’s Hash needs a big, oven-safe skillet to take on all the ingredients. It must include potatoes to get dubbed a hash and doesn’t have to rely on sausage, bacon or ham. Plus, it stars black beans which call out for other southwest flavours like hot peppers, cilantro and even avocado.

Best of all, the egg cooking portion is a no-brainer. Make room in this hash for eggs by making little wells that can contain their roundness but are forgiving if it’s a bad break.  The eggs will commence cooking the minute they nestle into their wells but they will all come to the finish line at the same time thanks to your preheated oven. Just three to five minutes at 400 F promotes even egg cooking as the cheese bubbles up and turns golden brown.  Because it’s not all about the eggs, is it?

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Nick's Hash

It’s always a challenge to cook eggs for a crowd. Here’s a filling take on brunch that’s easy to assemble and finish in the oven. Sliced avocados are nice on the side.

2 tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 roasted Yukon gold organic potatoes, skins on, chopped

1 jalapeno, chopped

10 grape tomatoes, quartered

½ tsp each ground roasted cumin, smoked paprika

1 cup grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar

2 cups black beans

4-6 eggs

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fresh coriander, finely chopped

Avocado, sliced or cubed

Preheat oven 400 F.

In a cast iron or oven-safe skillet heat oil, sauté onions, bell pepper, potatoes, jalapeno, cumin and smoked paprika for 5 min. or until potatoes are browned. Add tomatoes and sauté until the tomato juices release. Turn off heat. Distribute  cheese and black beans evenly over the surface. With a spoon, create a well for eggs and crack them in. Bake in oven for 5 minutes or until eggs have set.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve garnished with fresh coriander and sliced avocado.

A tale of two quiche

You’d think at my senior age, I’d know not to burn down my kitchen in the name of quiche.

It was a dilemma only I could manufacture. Six people were about to descend on my home for dinner. As per usual, I was running on octane, wrapping up meal prep at 60 miles an hour whilst two, deep-dish quiche peacefully baked in my oven. I remember sighing with relief as I settled the eggy creatures in my oven, calculating the expansive hour ahead. There was lots of time to get to the finish line.IMG_2765

My list was short (for me). Set the table and shake up a fresh salad dressing. Deal with a sink full of dirty dishes, wipe all the counters and set out appetizers. Whirling through the kitchen and across the dining room and back again is a dervish act I habitually spin in the nth hour.

But this time there was a catch: I smelt something.

When I peered into the oven to check on my half-baked quiche, a torrent of smoke billowed out. Oddly, butter was dripping off the crust and pooling on the oven floor, right beneath the red, hot, oven burners. I slammed shut the oven and rushed to open the sliding glass kitchen door to air out the smoke.  Mid-pull on the kitchen door, my ears were assaulted by the high-pitch scream of the smoke alarm. Instead of turning off the oven, I hit and slammed the alarm’s reset button three or four times. But it continued to wail.  I ripped the alarm right off the ceiling.

Pure manic panic flowed like a drug. I raced to my front door and commenced fanning the door back and forth like an Egyptian slave with a fig leaf – Cleopatra-style. Surely this would staunch the smoke, I prayed. Nearly hallucinating, I opened the oven again, my face assaulted by a newer, denser wall of smoke. I dipped my oven-gloved-hand into the grey mass to gently jiggle the quiche. Was it done?

IMG_2764Now who was I kidding?  Both me and my saner-self had seen the timer.  It was just 30 minutes into the one-hour bake. One jiggle of the pie sent yellow, eggy waves a coursing. Dinner for eight was doomed. If the quiche didn’t stay in the oven, despite the smoke and my concurrent mania, I’d have nothing to show for.

I was a professional, for God’s sake!

A slew of obscenities suddenly spewed from my mouth. I should have listened to my gut yesterday when I read that outlandish instruction: “Mix the pie dough by hand, pinching the fat to the size of hazelnuts with your fingertips.”

Every baker knows that hazelnuts are way too big. No wonder my rolled-out dough had huge yellow, (buttery) polka dots marring its surface like birth marks.

Like a novice, I had done what Bo Friberg deemed right on page 62 of “The Professional Pastry Chef”. I followed his Flaky Pie Dough and believed in him when he wrote “Unless you are making a large amount, always mix dough by hand.”

Wasn’t this a large amount? Aren’t these recipes for professionals, I kept wondering as I filled a huge bowl with a pound and a half of flour then laboriously broke and pinched over a pound of butter into it for half an hour to create four (count them, four) crusts.

Why had I forsaken cookbook author Bonnie Stern – with her pea-sized morsels and quick, food processor method – that had guided my pie-making career for decades?  Now a sparkling pool of fat was at the bottom of my oven, glistening ominously.

IMG_2771Despite better judgement, I continued to bake and smoke and bake, making a frenzied relay from front door to back, swinging doors madly until I saw The Flames.

At that instant, I bolted upstairs making my tenth worst decision of the day: I grabbed my plant mister. I was sliding down the stairs, arms flailing, calling out to the walls “Fire, Fire!”  when my stepdaughter Emma walked in the front door.

“The oven’s on fire!” I screamed, then yanked open the oven door, stupidly squirted water on an oil-based fire and closed the door. The flames still roared.

Resigned, I looked at Emma and said softly  “Call 911” in the calmest, most intelligent voice I’d procured in the past hour.

But no sooner did Emma reach into her purse and collect her phone did the bright orange flickering subside! Completely. We both stood staring in disbelief, waiting a whole, long minute until I opened the door, coughed through the haze and gingerly removed our dinner.

Emma opened windows. I flapped the front door.  And we laughed a smoky laugh.

IMG_2769The guests arrived 10 minutes later.  The table wasn’t set.  The salad and its dressing had to be made. The kitchen was a disaster zone: dishes, food, crumbs everywhere, not to mention the air drenched in smoke. I needed a valium but found a glass of wine instead.

“Tonight, we are dining on rare, smoked quiche,” I announced during the toast.

We dug into creamy, cheesy contents bordered by an ultra-buttery, uber-crisp crust. Not one person detected any je ne sais quoi. Several hummed about the leeks, noting their subtle sweetness.

I admit, maybe Smoky the Bear or Sparky the Fire Dog wouldn’t recommend my actions, but satiated and full, my dinner party was unanimous: those two stellar quiches were a lot better than no dinner (or house, or kitchen) at all.

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Quiche with leeks and goat cheese

  • Servings: 12, or two whole quiche
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Quiche is quick to prep (especially for visiting vegetarians) if you have a frozen crust tucked in your freezer.

2 tbsp butter

2 small leeks*, sliced

½ cup crumbled plain goat cheese OR 1 cup grated old cheddar or gruyere

4 large or extra-large eggs, beaten

¼ cup cream or whole milk

¼ tsp sea salt

Big pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Freshly ground black pepper

1 frozen, deep dish pie shell

Preheat oven 400F

In a large frying pan, heat butter at medium and sauté leeks until soft and fragrant. Remove from heat and allow to cool before sprinkling over the bottom of your frozen pie crust. Distribute cheese evenly on top. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, cream, salt, nutmeg and black pepper until frothy. Pour into pie shell, leaving at least half an inch between this liquid and the top of the crust (as the egg custard will expand and balloon over the edges if there is no headroom). Just in case, place the uncooked quiche on a baking sheet (to catch any spills)  before baking.

Bake 20-25 min or until golden brown and set. (If you see the quiche balloon or dome up during the last minutes of baking, remove from the oven immediately to prevent a split in the cooled custard.) Let it cool on a rack for 15 min before serving.

* No leeks? Substitute with ½ cup sliced shallots or onion.