Monday, May 3, 2010

Recipe #2: Nettle Tart With Goat Cheese

I thought the gloves would be the easy part. We have two pairs that we use to stack wood in the shed behind the restaurant, a space that used to feel like a back yard but now, with the condos surrounding us with a fifteen foot high cement retaining wall, the space feels much more like the bear enclosure at the zoo. When the cooks split wood before service, the solid thunk-crack of the axe hitting wood echoes along the wall. It’s kind of a lonely sound, or maybe just evocative of the early morning silence of a post-snowstorm Colorado morning, and the meditative solitude that descends like a dome around any repetitive, physical task. Shoveling snow, raking gravel, pulling weeds. All tasks that require stamina, and gloves. But, I was hasty when I grabbed two of the gloves from where they were stuffed into the “v” of supporting beams in the shed’s roof, looking like nothing so much as a haven for Black Widow spiders, and found myself in the kitchen with two right-handed gloves and only 23 minutes in which I could run this experiment. It turns out that nothing is easy with nettles. Well, this recipe is pretty easy, actually.

Nettle and Goat Cheese Tart with Fennel-Frond Honey and Coarse Salt
1 T butter
1 medium shallot
Nettles, however many you can stand working with, up to a pound (pre-blanched, pre-picked weight)
2 eggs
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup crumbled goat cheese, or whatever cheese you happen to have dying in the refrigerator door.
One scant batch Basic Pie Dough
½ cup honey
1 Tablespoon chopped fennel fronds
2 T coarse sea salt

You’ll Also Need:
A sauté pan
One 9-inch tart pan with fluted edge and removable bottom
A big pot of salted, boiling water
A big bowl of ice water
A decent Knife

Put sauté pan over medium-low heat. Put butter into the pan. Slice the shallot into rings as thick as a plastic poker chip. Put shallots in pan with butter. Make sure the heat is high enough to “melt” the shallots, but not so hot that they will burn while your attention is elsewhere.

Set a large pot on the stove over high heat and bring it to a boil. Have an ice bath handy.

Put on gloves and confront the nettles. Consider and dismiss the feeling that you may accidentally kill someone with this folly. Look at the clock, think about the mountain of paperwork that still awaits before you can leave for your weekend, not to mention the towering wall of chicken that must be prepped and soaked in buttermilk for Sunday’s wildly popular Family Style Fried Chicken.

In batches small enough to ensure the greens are submerged (and thusly disarmed) in boiling water, push the nettles into the hot water. Pull them out a couple minutes later and “shock” them in the ice bath.

Scratch at the three or four red spots that have appeared out of nowhere on your hand. Wonder if your throat is closing. Watch the pizza cook strip a basil stem and feel a profound desire to be using that friendly, versatile herb, with its heady aroma and willingness to add deliciousness to whatever dish it is added to. Try to name the tune the pizza cook is humming, so happy is she to be working with basil. Look at the clock.

Pull the blanched leaves from the stems and coarsely chop the greens. Add them to the sauté pan with the shallot. Toss, toss, toss. Add salt and pepper. Toss.

Discard blanching water, which, by the way, is the color of marsh water. Clean up your area and assemble remaining ingredients. If you haven’t already made your pie crust, now is the time to rummage through the shelves in the walk-in until you find a small, leftover chunk of dough.

Scatter a bit of flour on your cutting board and roll the dough out. Drape over the sprayed tart pan and make it pretty. Using tongs, put the greens and shallots into the pan, making sure they are evenly distributed across the base of the pan.

Beat eggs with cream. Season with salt and pepper. Add cheese to this basic custard, and mix slightly – you want some of the cheese to be carried with the liquid, but you want some of it to stay on top, too, both to provide a strong “net” of proteins and fats across your tart, but also because it will brown and look really pretty, adding to the tart’s evolving appearance of edibleness. Pour over the greens, shaking the pan ever so slightly to make sure the liquid gets into all the nettle crannies. Put your tart on a baking sheet and slide it into an oven, 350 – 375 degrees – if it’s hotter, watch it a little more closely, but it should all work out. It’ll take about 35 – 40 minutes to bake. Check it after 25 mins.

Dash out of kitchen to talk about the menu with the two new servers. File some paper work on the new guy you just hired. Return to kitchen in time to help set up the area for the chicken prep. Push away sense of despair always brought on by the open box filled with sticky pink body parts and get ready to play Race the Clock with your A.M. Sous, a game that makes the chicken thing a lot more fun.

As you’re cutting backs from breasts, think about what you want to serve the tart with. I believe there is a strong narrative element to food, and that indulging in a little bit of free association while you’re making something new contributes to the overall gestalt of the dish; I find the images that burble up from the subconscious consummately interesting, if a bit elusive and hard to consistently convey on busy nights. So, a nettle tart with goat cheese. Fun to think about goats eating nettles, and that a trace of their flavor might find its way into the goat’s milk, and from there into the cheese. Honey and goat cheese are nice together. All rough rock wall, and long wooden kitchen table, spring time, hearth, home, rough patches smoothed over with a little sweetness. The honey is a bit like amber, and it would be fun to suspend something that looks like insect stings, or little green needles, in that clear medium, next to the rich opacity of baked cheese. Nice to use some of the lightly anise-flavored fennel fronds. Chopped into pieces as long as a pencil lead, mixed into the honey. And then a tiny scattering of coarse sea salt, to add flavor, but the tiny shards also bring to mind shattered glass, which is fun on a nettle dish.

Interrupt this reverie to check the tart, which is done. Explain to the pantry cook how you’d like it plated: on a small round, with half an ounce drizzled frond honey and a very small scatter of salt crystals, some of which should barely run into the honey. Direct her to the first aid kit when she mentions that she has a screaming pain in her wrist from where she rubbed it with a towel that may or may not have come in contact with the raw nettles. She’ll be fine, but given that the work place is fairly dangerous to begin with, what with all the fire and knives, you might feel a little bit tired from introducing the added risk of stinging weeds. Make a light quip about next week’s special featuring poison ivy pesto.
Put up a slice of the tart for the servers to try. Try it yourself. It is delicious.

Serves eight.