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.
Once 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.
“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.
I 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.
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).
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.