It’s springtime in Seattle and the land is engorged with possibility. You don’t need to go farther than your own neighborhood to make a meal fit for royalty, let me show you. I cook by feel rather than by rote more often than not, and it’s a good habit to be in if you want to focus on seasonality. Rather than go to the store armed with a nitpicking recipe and a fastidious commitment to detail, loosen up. Go with the flow. Take a walk. That’s what I did, and two blocks from my house I ran across a patch of stinging nettle ripe for the taking. There may have been a touch more planning involved as I was armed with gloves, shears and a bag for my bounty- all necessary for harvesting stinging nettle lest you desire prickly pain all day. In fact if you’re not sure it’s stinging nettle there is one surefire way to check, though I don’t recommend it :)
I brought my nettle home and lightly steamed it to render it harmless, then plucked the leaves from the tougher stems. Harvest younger, shorter nettle for best flavor and tenderness. Once I had my nettles ready to go the rest of the meal fell into place readily. I had a fresh fat duck sitting in the refrigerator waiting to be fabricated (broken down) and cooked sous vide, so I thought I’d make a pasta with the nettles and some kind of saucy meaty accompaniment with the duck.
I fabricated the duck into four parts and seasoned each quarter with homemade salt, thyme, smoked garlic powder, bay leaves, and oregano. I packed each quarter into food-safe bags and sous vided the legs and thighs for 15 hours at 180° and the breasts at the same temperature for five hours. Normally you can get by with cooking duck breast at 140°, but since I kept the bone-in I maintained a higher cooking temperature as I was looking for more of a fall-off-the-bone tenderness rather than a firm breast. Funny, kind of the opposite as you’d want in a human, no?
Initially I thought of making gnocchi with the nettles, but settled on its ricotta-based cousin called gnudi (which means nude in Italian and is short for gnocchi gnudi- aka gnocchi nude of the pasta itself). Some folks refer to gnudi as malfatti, which means badly made, but I like gnudi better, plus I take time in forming each gnudo, so they’re not really as roughly made as some malfatti can be. As I see it, a main difference between malfatti and gnudi (though this varies regionally and is hotly debated) is that malfatti can be made by simply dropping dollops of dough into boiling water (you can even plop them out using a pastry bag) whereas gnudi tends to be formed using spoons or hands. I thought gnudi rather than gnocchi would bring out the flavor of the nettle as it wouldn’t be competing with potato. I thought correctly- who woulda known?
Making gnudi is fun. That sentence wasn’t meant to sound sexual, I promise. First you press out all the liquid from one tub of ricotta and the nettles, then whir them in a food processor with either two duck egg yolks or three chicken yolks. Plop the goo into a mixing bowl and add salt, smoked garlic powder if you wish, and flour as needed to form a light dough. A cup and a half of flour should more or less suffice. (tip- the amount of flour needed in most recipes will vary with your humidity and altitude. Learn to adjust by feel rather than rely on a specific number).
To form the gnudi roll a teaspoon of dough between your palms into a little oval. Place on a parchment-lined sheetpan and repeat with remaining dough. Cover while waiting for the water to boil and finishing the duck and sauce. Cook gnudi as you would gnocchi- by dropping into salted boiling water and removing with a slotted spoon once they float to the top. Keep in warming oven while boiling the remainder.
Rhubarb became the base for the duck sauce because it is seasonal and growing like mad all around Seattle. I chopped it into small pieces and reduced it in moscato wine, chicken stock and the juice of one orange. After ten minutes I strained it, tossing the rhubarb chunks. I poured some duck fat and jus from one of the duck pouches into the saucepan and lightly sautéed a spring onion in it. Then I added the rhubarb sauce and reduced a bit further, adjusting seasoning as needed. To finish the dish, I crisped up the skin on the duck by deep-frying them for two minutes. Then I plated the gnocchi, a quarter of duck, and drizzled rhubarb reduction over both.
This dining experience is an example of how relatively simple it is to incorporate local, seasonal elements into cuisine. Rhubarb and nettles were foraged and duck eggs come from a local farm as does the duck itself. Herbs all came from my garden, salt I made from Washington waters, garlic powder was made and smoked at home. While I buy my ricotta from DeLaurenti in Pike Place Market and they make it themselves, I easily could have made it too. It’s one of the quickest cheeses to make; in fact it’s a byproduct of many other cheeses. I hope this post inspires you to take a walk and cook off the beaten path. Your diners will thank you for it.