Thursday, April 18, 2019

Stinging Nettle Powder Pasta

I wrote (here) about making green pasta with a torchio pasta press. During my research to create a torchio-friendly green dough, I came across an interesting note in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf, 2008).

Outside of spinach, no other coloring can be recommended as an alternative to basic yellow pasta. Other substances have no flavor, and therefore have no gastronomic interest. Or, if they do contribute flavor, such as that of the deplorable black pasta whose dough is tinted with squid ink, its taste is not fresh. Pasta does not need to be dressed up, except in the colors and aromas of its sauce.

Other pasta masters take a more favorable view of flavored pasta. In Bugialli on Pasta (Simon and Schuster, 1988), Giuliano Bugialli devotes an entire chapter to flavored pasta and shares dough recipes incorporating: tomato paste; saffron; paprika; tomato and oregano; green bell peppers; red bell peppers; artichokes; wild mushroom; rosemary; sage; black pepper; and lemon.

Marc Vetri’s Mastering Pasta (Ten Speed Press, 2015) also dedicates an entire chapter to flavored pasta (including a recipe for squid ink pasta). Thomas McNaughton’s Flour + Water Pasta (Ten Speed Press, 2014) contains recipes for Cocoa Tajarin, Tomato Farfalle and Red Wine Rigatoni. Even a modern classicist like Paul Bertolli includes a recipe for herb pasta in his masterwork Cooking by Hand (Potter, 2003).

Most vegetable or herb dough recipes recommend either hand chopping or puréeing the flavoring and then working it into the flour during kneading. In some cases, such as Bugialli’s artichoke-flavored pasta, the recipe calls for braising the artichokes, then using a food mill to purée the artichokes, and finally reducing the purée into a thick paste before incorporating the flavoring into the flour. Reducing a purée eliminates extra liquid and concentrates flavor.

Using a dried powdered ingredient delivers the essence of a flavor without any liquid. Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns in their Bar Tartine cookbook (Chronicle Books, 2014) write: “[d]ehydration is more than just a method for preserving food. Extracting the bulk of the water from fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish concentrates flavors and changes textures. It’s one of our most important tools for building flavor.”

Although the exception rather than the rule, pasta dough recipes using dehydrated ingredients exist. In the cookbooks referenced above, Bugialli shares a flavored pasta recipe that calls for paprika. McNaughton’s Tomato Farfalle recipe uses tomato powder.

If you own a dehydrator, you can make a flavoring powder in less than a day. Fresh, stemmed leafy herbs, such as basil, oregano, mint and parsley turn brittle yet bright after 6 to 8 hours in a dehydrator set at 95°F/35°C. Flowers such as fennel, elderflower and cilantro only take 2 to 6 hours to dehydrate. If you don’t own or have access to a dehydrator, you can dry ingredients in a low oven, outside in the sun, or even indoors if you have the time and patience. Another option: experiment with store bought dried ingredients, such as wild mushrooms.

It being spring and owning a dehydrator, I decided to make a pasta dough using powdered wild stinging nettles. After foraging and washing the nettles to remove dirt and bugs, I cut the leaves off their stems and blotted the leaves dry. Following the advice of Balla and Burns, I set my dehydrator to run at 95°F for 8 hours.

Stinging nettles smell extraordinarily wonderful while drying. After 8 hours I put the brittle leaves, which no longer deliver a painful sting but remain prickly, into an electric spice grinder. My five dehydrator trays of nettle leaves produced enough dark green nettle powder to fill a small vial. 

I made two batches of pasta dough with my nettle powder. For the first batch I added 2 grams of nettle powder to 70 grams of Central Milling Organic Type 00 Flour and 43 grams of Central Milling Extra Fancy Durum flour. I made my dough in a standing mixer fit with a paddle using just enough of a whole egg and another egg yolk mixture—about 70 grams—to form a clumpy green dough. Wrapped in plastic film, this dough hydrated for 30 minutes at room temperature. I then placed it into the chamber of my torchio fitted with a lumache bronze pasta die. In minutes I had a trove of dark green snail shells. After making some egg pasta snails, I added the cooked straw and hay lumache into a light sauce of thinly sliced asparagus braised in rice koji stock and finished with a bit of cream, freshly chopped parsley and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The nettle pasta had a slight vegetative and nutty flavor.

For my second batch of dough I reduced the amount of nettle powder to 1 gram and used a ziti bronze die. The finished ziti pasta remained green, but less intensely so. I’ll stick with the 2-gram version in the future.

It’s easy to get excited about—and perhaps even carried away with—all the possibilities afforded by using flavored powders to make pasta dough. Circling back to Marcella Hazan’s note that opened this post, I believe one’s own personal taste should govern what one wishes to make and to eat and to share at one’s table. If the idea of making pasta verde appeals to you, give nettle powder a try.