Easter, always a gateway holiday for the start of Spring cooking, arrived early this year. Since we were invited to a large gathering celebrating the holiday, I was tasked with preparing some desserts—which I did, reflecting on confections my grandmother and aunt always served on Easter Sunday, an important and fun family holiday when I was growing up. However, it wasn’t until now that I have begun to prepare dishes that celebrate the abundance Spring ingredients have to offer.
Artichokes, asparagus, carrots, chives and chive blossoms, English peas and pea shoots (or tendrils), fennel, lamb, lettuces, onions, garlic, radishes, ramps, rhubarb, salmon, shad, Spring greens, stinging nettles, strawberries, trout, and veal.
In the next several posts I will share recipes and perspectives using as many of the Spring ingredients as the markets have to offer. So let’s begin with two of my favorite dishes that you will always find in my kitchen—a frittata and a minestra. They are easy and quick to prepare, healthy, require only a few ingredients, and offer the home cook many options and combinations as the flavoring possibilities are endless.
Frittata is most often described as a flat, round, open-faced egg dish, the Italian interpretation of an omelet. The basic elements are eggs, cream, onions, cheese, and whatever other filling(s) are combined and mixed into the eggs before they are poured into the hot pan. Frittate are best served warm or at room temperature, can be a first course, a lunch, or even a dinner. They can be presented plain, or sauced, added to an antipasti, and used as sandwich filler, or a picnic spread.
One technique for successfully preparing a frittata is to start with a hot pan. That allows the egg mix to set up quickly. The purists will tell you that in order to finish the cooking process you either have to turn out the frittata onto a plate, flip it over, and slide it back into the pan to cook the opposite side, or if you think you are clever enough, simply flip the frittata over, landing it back in the pan to finish. I am not that clever nor dexterous enough since I have missed hitting the pan dead center with past attempts. Nor do I favor having to handle a heavy hot pan while sliding the frittata onto a plate and flipped back into the pan. The method I prefer is to start the frittata on the stovetop, browning the bottom as it begins to firm up. Then I place the pan in a 350-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes until the frittata completely sets and the top sizzles. A quick finish under the broiler nicely browns the top. Allow both the pan and the frittata to cool for a few minutes out of the oven, then slide the finished dish out of the pan and onto a platter.
Minestra describes a dish that is generally considered a soup, more stew-like and vegetable based rather than a zuppa which is more broth-like, and generally includes a toasted or grilled bread slice rather than pasta, rice, or even potato.
Minestre can be made of countless vegetable and legume combinations; think of Minestrone, finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and a sprinkle of grated Parmigiano or Pecorino.
Derived from the Latin, minestare; “to administer,” it is a dish served from a central pot or large bowl as the main or at times the only course of the meal. For me the minestre is one of those go-to pantry staples, prepared from simple healthful ingredients that functions as an easy-to-assemble light meal.
Asparagus and Greens Frittata
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 large thick asparagus
6 chives, minced
12 parsley sprigs, leaves and fine stems minced
6 pea tendrils/shoots
6 large eggs either chicken or duck, separated
¼ cup Half & Half
1 teaspoon roasted garlic jam (puree)
½ cup grated Parmigiano or an aged Pecorino
Salt and pepper
¼ cup bread crumbs
Using a 10- to 12-inch oven-proof sauté pan or nonstick pan, gently heat the oil and butter until the butter melts, keep warm.
Trim 2 inches off the top of the asparagus and carefully cut those pieces into quarters and set aside.
Using a vegetable peeler, scrape 12 to 15 full slices off each asparagus spear and set aside.
Combine the minced parsley and chives and set aside. Separate the pea tendrils so they are not all tangled together and will disperse evenly when mixed within the eggs, set aside. Grate the cheese and set aside.
Separate 6 eggs, putting the whites in a separate work bowl. Place the remaining egg yolks, the Half & Half, garlic puree, the prepared greens, 2/3 of the grated cheese, and some salt and pepper in a separate work bowl. Using a whisk, whip to combine. Using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites into a frothy soft peaked foam and then gently fold into the egg mixture.
Raise the heat in the sauté pan so the oil and butter are hot but not smoking. At the same time preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place a small drop of the egg mix in the sauté pan and if it sets up right away the pan is ready. Working quickly, pour the egg mixture across the surface of the pan, running a spatula around the outside and gently shaking the pan so the egg mixture spreads and heats evenly.
While the frittata sets up in the pan, gently place the 8 cut asparagus tops around the center, sprinkle the remaining cheese, breadcrumbs, and some extra black pepper over the top.
Once the frittata is set in the pan and moves easily when the pan is shaken, place it in the preheated oven to complete the overall cooking, for approximately 3 to 5 minutes. Finally, place the frittata under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes more to lightly brown the top.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for a few minutes before sliding it onto a platter to serve warm or at room temperature.
Minestra of Greens, Potatoes, and Tomato
Over the years I have prepared this dish using kale, spinach, escarole, and Swiss chard with different but consistently good results. This Spring I have been exploring nettles (stinging nettles) and thought I would give those a try as the green component of this dish.
Until I read about this common edible weed (urtica dioica) the nettle, or stinging nettle, I didn’t know that it is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and western North America. To my eye, the leaves resembles a hybrid combination of cannabis and mint, it softens quickly like spinach when cooked, and has a distinctively earthy, grassy herbal flavor.
The stinging part was annoying because when unprotected skin comes in contact with the plant’s fine hair-like fibers on both the leaves and stems they will impart an irritating stinging or burning which can last several hours. Not to belabor the point or engage in a food science discussion, but the lesson here is wear gloves when handling and quickly blanch the leaves for less than 10 seconds, or sauté them first before proceeding with the recipe.
As it happens, Italians use nettles often in their cooking as do the Greeks. Having grown up in an Italian-American household one would think nettles were prepared from time to time; however, they never came up on my culinary radar until recently, although I assume that one or both my grandmothers ate and cooked with them back in the day.
Now that I have identified a reliable source (Earthy Delights) for a good quality product when in season, it was time to include nettles in my mix of Spring ingredients to cook.
Initially I prepared a frittata, a pesto with which I sauced pasta and also added to risotto, and a soup which included onions and potatoes. However, I am discovering they are an excellent green for purees, sauces, savory tarts, filled pastas, tapenade, or to color dough for fresh pasta the same as if using squid ink or spinach.
Once you get beyond the stinging part, nettles have been characterized as a “super food” because they are high in protein and fiber, vitamins A and C, as well as iron. They also freeze well once blanched so they can be used over time in a variety of ways without going out of season.
So with that perspective, here is a minestra recipe using nettles. These humble ingredients—potatoes, tomatoes, and greens—are transformed into a delicious dish. The potatoes are cooked until they are creamy, the tomatoes add a tart sweetness, and the nettles add a soft herbal flavor. It can be eaten warm or served at room temperature, finished with a drizzle of good olive oil and sprinkled with salt, pepper, red chili flakes, and grated aged Pecorino or Parmigiano.
1 bunch of nettles, washed, leaves removed (remember the gloves)
1 pound potatoes, Yukon Gold or other (peeled or not), cut into bite-size pieces
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-oz can Italian tomatoes, either run thru a food mill for a smooth base or crushed by hand for a more textured base
1½ cups stock, either vegetable or chicken
Fresh oregano leaves to taste, rough chopped
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes, grated cheese
Olive oil for sauté and to finish
In a large stockpot heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the onion, lower the heat slightly, and sauté the onion until it softens and begin to color.
Add the garlic and stir to combine, adding a pinch of salt and pepper, and continue to sauté until the garlic infuses with the onions.
Add the tomatoes, the stock, the oregano, and an additional pinch or salt and pepper. Adjust the heat to bring the liquid to a simmer, the add the potatoes and cook uncovered until the potatoes are just fork tender.
Add the prepared nettle leaves and thoroughly mix to combine. In this case, since the nettles are being placed in a hot liquid they do not need to be blanched ahead of time. Sprinkle some chili flakes over.
Simmer the minestra for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to partially break up the potatoes and thicken the overall broth.
Once the potatoes are fully cooked, the minestra can be served. Check and correct the seasoning adding salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste.
Ladle the minestra into warm bowls, drizzled with good olive oil and a sprinkle with the grated cheese of your choosing.
That begins our cooking journey exploring dishes using Spring ingredients. A frittata can be a blank canvas in which any mix of greens can be paired with the asparagus, or simply use the asparagus spears by themselves, shaving and cutting them in various ways to create some texture in the mix. And, I hope you get to try the nettles in the featured recipe or in one of the many other ways listed because they are tasty and fun.
Eat well. Be well.
“Taste, observe, and adjust as needed. Cooking is as much about following instinct as following recipes.” SPQR