It is weed season. Nettles and dandelion are among the treasures from my local farm. The nettles let me know in no uncertain terms that they are wild; they must be handled with gloves or will inflame my hands with a burning rash. I’ve discovered that wilted in cream with a handful of chives, they lose their ferocity. The dandelion greens are spiky and bitter, asking to be tamed by longer cooking.
They make me hunger for a simple dish I first read in Honey From a Weed, a cookbook I’ve continued to enjoy for over thirty years. It is a perfect piece of writing by Patience Gray who left her life in London as a journalist to accompany her sculptor husband to the Mediterranean in search of marble.
She conjures a way of life and place and discovery that is both simple and breathtaking; she lives without fridge or running water, learning to cook as her neighbors do, cleverly foraging what is around her: not just foods but the many pleasures her spartan life offers..
Filling my water jar at the spring, I had a daily opportunity to examine these weeds and ask advice, and began to gather them myself, but first always offering them for inspection. At the time I was reading the landscape and its flora with as much attention as one gives to an absorbing book.
Gray has much to say about Weeds and how they are used in Macedonia. My favorite still, marked years ago with a yellowing post-it:
Weeds promote energy.
Dandelion and Chicory Cooked in Kryia Agapi’s Way is a roughly notated recipe for rice with weeds that I first made in my New York City apartment one evening years ago. Rice is cooked with handfuls of weeds then finished with grated sheep’s milk cheese or Parmigiano Reggiano, and pine nuts. Its flavor was one I recognized at once, as though through some stirring of my Greek bloodline, for I had never tasted it. It was homely, utterly simple, delicious, rooted in a Macedonian village.
I couldn’t help but start Agapi’s rice with sauteed shallot. The essential premise transforms easily into a stellar Risotto with Peppery Greens. See below for both recipes.
Recipe: Rice with Greens after Patience Gray
Homely, comforting and elemental, I turn to this dish when I want an utterly simple supper alone or with a friend.
I’ve made the dish with dandelion, nettles, beet tops, turnip greens and arugula but find dandelion alone the most satisfying.
Serves 2 as a main course; 4 as a first or side dish. It can easily be doubled.
About 3/4 pound dandelion, chicory, beet or turnip greens, rinsed and spun dry
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 cup long grain white rice
1 teaspoon salt + more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
A large handful of pine nuts
A chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, or sheep or goat’s milk cheese such as Manchego, Fiore Sardo, Pecorino Toscano or an aged Crottin de Chavignol.
Stack the leaves on a cutting board . Cut off the brown really tough stem ends and discard. Then slice or chop the greens into 1/4 to 1/2-inch pieces.
In a medium, heavy saucepan, heat the oil over moderate heat. Stir in the shallot, cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook the mixture slowly, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are soft and translucent, about 4 minutes.
Add the greens, cover, and increase the heat to medium, adding a tablespoon or two of water if necessary to prevent sticking. Cook the greens about 4 minutes, rearranging them several times in the pan until they are wilted. Add the rice, 1 1/2 cups of water and the salt. Cover and simmer on lowish heat until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 25 minutes. Stir in plenty of fresh pepper to taste and a handful of pine nuts.
Serve the rice dusted liberally with freshly grated cheese.
Recipe: Risotto with Peppery Greens
Here, the essential recipe above morphs into a creamy risotto.
1 1/4 pounds dandelion greens OR Swiss chard, spinach and arugula in any combination
5 to 6 cups unsalted or low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot or onion
1 1/2 cups (10 ounces) Italian rice for risotto, such as Carnaroli, Vialone Nano or Arborio
1/2 cup dry wine
2 tablespoons heavy cream, creme fraiche or sour cream
About 3/4 cup grated aged cheese such as Parmesan, Manchego, Tomme de Chevre, or Crotin de Chevignol, or more to taste
Freshly ground pepper
Salt to taste
Remove the tough stems from the greens, wash in several changes of cold water and spin dry. Cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil over high heat; lower the heat to maintain a simmer until ready to use.
In a large heavy saucepan, heat the butter and olive oil over low heat. Add the shallots or onion, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent about 4 minutes.
Uncover, increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring, until the onions are golden. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the grains look chalky with a white dot in the center of each about 5 minutes. Do not allow the rice to brown.
Add the wine and cook, stirring, until it has been absorbed by the rice.
Stir in 1/2 cup of the broth. Cook at a very low boil, stirring frequently, until the liquid is almost absorbed, 3 to 5 minutes. Continue adding the broth in this fashion, 1/2 cup at a time, until the rice is tender yet still firm in the center, and the risotto is creamy but not soupy. This will take about 25 minutes.
Stir in the cream, 1/4 cup of the cheese, salt, pepper.
Serve at once, passing the remaining cheese on the side.