Thursday, 12 April 2012

Urzici cu orez la cuptor

“Nettles with rice in the oven”

So, in a previous post I cooked a dish of patience dock leaves with rice (stevie cu orez) so it only seemed fitting that I cook a similarly popular countryside dish from their archnemisis, the stinging nettle. If you’ve never eaten stinging nettles before then don’t worry as cooked nettles won’t sting. Nettles, or urzici as they are called in Romanian, start to appear in the markets around the beginning of April. In fact, there is a day dedicated to nettles called ‘nunta urzicilor’ (the wedding of the nettles) which is usually the last Sunday before Easter Sunday and is also celebrated as the Day of Flowers, when people called Florin or Florentina are wished well. After this day nettles are no longer considered good eating as their taste decreases once they have flowered, although I've obviously ignored this - we had a late winter so we are perhaps a few weeks behind schedule. However, whenever you pick your nettles, make sure you go for the young fresh tips of the plant. If you have them growing in your garden, you can continue to trim them, harvesting the new tips as they appear, for some time. If you forage them, make sure you wash them well and avoid those nettles from the roadside (probably too stinky with pollution to be edible).

In this recipe, which I found in Radu Anton Roman’s book, I’m just going to cook a simple oven dish of nettles made with rice and eggs, similar to the dish I made with the stevie (patience dock). Again, it can be a meal in its own right, or a side dish. You could serve it, as with other leaf-based dishes, with a poached or fried egg (runny yolk, of course) and even with a little bacon. As a side dish, it would probably go best with pork or beef.

Time: 90 minutes
Servings: 6 (as a main) to 8 (as a side)

About 1kg (a very full carrier bag) of stinging nettles
4 eggs
50g of butter
1 glass (about 200ml) of milk
4 tablespoons of plain flour
Around 200g of telemea (white cheese, feta)
Salt and pepper

1. Pick over the nettles and remove any old leaves, rotten leaves, badly chewed leaves, wilted leaves, excessively long stalks, stalks with roots still attached – anything that doesn’t look good – and give the nettles a very good wash in cold water to remove any soil or sand.
2. Bring a large stock pot half full of water to the boil (or if you don’t have such a pot, bring two or three regular pots of water to the boil or do it in batches). Plunge the nettles into the boiling water, leave them to return to the boil, stir from time to time, and cook until well wilted and soft, probably about 5-10 minutes. Check they are done by looking for a thicker stem and tasting it – it should be soft and edible, not at all chewy, but perhaps with a little crunch. When they are done, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and dump into a colander over a bowl to collect the liquid. Leave for a while to drain well and steam dry. Some poeple reserve the drained liquid and drink it in the mornings on an empty stomach for health reasons - it's supposed to be a good purifier.
3. While they are boiling, wash a cup of rice and cook it in boiling water until soft.
4. While the rice is boiling, beat the eggs together in a bowl and mix in the butter (melted), the pepper, the milk, and the flour. Beat together until it’s well combined and frothy. Put to one side.
5. Once the nettles have drained and cooled a bit, chop them up roughly with a heavy knife or a mezzaluna. Probably best to do this in batches.
6. Mix the chopped nettles with the egg mixture and the cooked rice and season with salt to taste.
7. Grease a ceramic baking dish with butter or lard and tip in the nettle mixture.
8. Grate or crumble the white cheese on top.
9. Put it on the oven, preheated to a lowish heat (about 180-200C say), and leave it there for about 30 to 40 minutes, just about long enough for the egg mixture to thicken and the cheese to turn brown.

The resulting dish can be served in squares. I had it on its own with a simple salad of leurda and ceapa verde (wild garlic and spring onion) mixed together with some mayo.

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