Nettle Gnocchi with Cherry Tomato Sauce

DSC_0034_3There’s more to nettle cooking than soup.

These light and tasty dumplings are quite different from (let’s face it, somewhat heavy) potato gnocchi.  They are made with wilted nettles and ricotta cheese, poached and complimented with tangy tomato sauce.  They make an excellent seasonal starter or supper dish. Serve 5-6 gnocchi per person, with a little sauce, not too much, and parmesan.

Young wilted nettles taste a bit like pea pods, if you cook them longer, say in a soup, they begin to take on a more earthy, iron-y tang. However you cook them, they make delicious greens.DSCF3068

Nettle picking

Get your rubber gloves on and pick the youngest leaves at the top of the plant (the top 4 are best), or the young shoots as they break through the earth. Older bigger leaves may contain tough fibers. Pick a substantial amount, enough to fill a shopping carrier bag, then take them home and wash them in a bowl of water (remembering to keep the gloves on). My bag weighed in at 425g, just under a pound. 

To wilt nettles

Place in the washed nettles in a colander and shake the water off the nettle tops. DSC_0004_6Place them in a large pan over a low heat and put a lid. The small amount of water clinging to the leaves will be enough to steam them. Wilt them down for  3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. They should remain bright dark green. Remove from heat and place back in the colander to cool and drain. DSC_0006_2_4They are now soft and ready to eat. For this recipe you will also need to squeeze out excess water with your fists, when cooled, or there will be too much liquid to hold the gnocci together.

A large bag will make a ball of cooked nettles that will fit in your hand.

Nettle Gnocci – makes 24-28DSC_0015_2_2

2                                large eggs, beaten

1 tub (240g)               ricotta cheese

85g (3 oz)                  grated Parmesan

1/4 tsp                       salt

1/2 tsp                       nutmeg, ground

1/4tsp                        pepper

Some flour for rolling

Wilt the nettles as instructed above, allow to cool and then squeeze the water from them gently with your fists.

Now place the nettles and ricotta in a large bowl and mash together with a fork.  When well mixed, add the eggs, parmesan, a grating of nutmeg, salt and pepper.  Mix everything together with a wooden spoon.  If you have time, pop the bowl in the fridge for an hour or so, it helps to stiffen the mixture.DSC_0019_2_5

DSC_0020_3_3DSC_0023_3Now sprinkle some flour on a flat plate or shallow bowl. Take a dessert spoon of the mixture, shape it into an oval gnocci in your (wet) hands and roll lightly in the flour.  Alternatively, can also use two spoons to make neat little quenelles the completed gnocchi on another clean plate, taking care not to pile them on top of each other.

Meanwhile, fill a large pan with water, bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer. Carefully drop the gnocchi in batches of 8-10, into the water.  They will sink to the bottom.  DSC_0027_4_2When they rise to the surface, continue to cook for about 1 minute and they are done.DSC_0031_2_2

Lift them out carefully with a slotted spoon and keep warm while you finish the rest.  Serve with ‘Cherry Tomato Sauce’ (see below) and parmesan.

Fresh Cherry Tomato sauceDSC_0005_5

1tblsp                                     olive oil

1/2                                         onion, finely chopped

1 small punnet                         fresh cherry tomatoes, chopped roughly

1 tsp                                        tomato puree (optional)

1/4tsp                                    sugar

1/2 tsp salt or to taste

You need tasty tomatoes for this sauce and it is difficult to get good tomatoes in the early months of spring in Dartmoor.  I use cherry tomatoes which have more flavour and also look attractive with the gnocci. The sauce is barely cooked, so they hold their shape. You don’t need much sauce for the gnocci or it will overwhelm the dish.

Heat the oil and cook the onion until translucent and golden.DSC_0009_2_7 Meanwhile, cut every little tomato in half.  When the onion has softened, add the halved tomatoes, tomato puree, a dash of sugar to counter the acidity and a good pinch of salt. DSC_0011_3_3 Cook for 1 minute, add a spoon of water, stir once to mix the ingredients, cook for another 2 minutes adding a little more water if necessary to keep the sauce loose. So that’s three minutes in all. The cherry tomatoes will have softened and the sauce is rich and tangy.DSC_0013_2



Lao Chicken Laap (Larb, Laab)

DSC_0036_2_2Laap or Laab is the national celebratory dish of LaosIt is a flavour experience everyone remembers and not a scrap is left on the plate when I make it for friends.

Laap is essentially a fresh herb infused salad made from raw meat or fish which is cured in lime juice and mixed with chopped herbs and roasted rice powder. More recently, it has become popular to cook the meat element first.

Everyone has their own recipe for Laap and during my stay in Laos I was to eat it raw, cooked, made with deer, duck, just with offal, with and without lime, with galangal, with different herbs, with raw aubergines; the list goes on and on.

My friend Vandara who runs the Vanvisa Guesthouse in Luang Prabang showed me this recipe. It is achievable in a Western kitchen being neither raw or containing the fermented fish condiment, paa-dek.

I simply roast a whole chicken with a drop of oil and salt and pepper, then chop it up, while still warm, for this dish. It is important to include the tastier dark meat as breast alone is really too bland and dry.. You can cut out the liver if you so prefer.  Follow recipe as below:

1 1/2lbs free-range tasty chicken cooked as above.

4 tablespoon Asian coriander, finely chopped

1 tablespoon spring onion, finely chopped

2 red chillis (optional)

2 inch piece galangal, peeled and finely sliced.

3 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped

2 tablespoon fish sauce or paa-dek water

2 tablespoon lime juice or more to taste

2 tablespoon roasted rice powder (see below)

1/2 lb chicken liver, cooked (optional)

1 banana flower bud, very finely sliced or half a small white cabbage (optional)

a large handful of mint leaves, roughly torn

Take the roasted chicken and remove the crispy skin, then every scrap of meat and transfer to a plate.  Slice the skin finely, then chop the meat with a cleaver or heavy knife until you have a fine mince. Take the cooked liver and chop that up too. Do not use a food processor as the meat will tear and go gooey.  Put the chopped meat into a large bowl, and set aside the chopped liver in another bowl.

Add the finely chopped coriander, spring onion, chilli and galangal to the bowl of minced chicken.  Add the fish sauce and lime juice and mix to your taste.  I prefer more lime, Vandara prefers more fish sauce.

Now add the chopped liver, banana flower/cabbage and the rice powder (if you add these ingredients earlier they soak up all the lime and fish sauce and spoil the dish.)

Mix in the mint, add more lime if you wish and serve with a plate of salad, raw vegetables and a bowl of clear chicken soup.  I like to scoop it into the crunchy salad leaves before I eat it. Yum. 

Roasted Rice Powder

This can be bought in packets in Asian stores but it does not smell the same so it is better to make it on the day.   Here is how to make your own.

Place a couple of handfuls of uncooked rice (sticky rice if possible) into a dry wok or skillet on a medium heat.  Roast the rice, shaking the wok frequently and stirring with a wooden spoon to cook it evenly.  The rice is done when it looks toasted and golden brown (though some Laotians prefer to cook it to a dark brown colour), transfer it to a bowl to cool.  Grind the roasted rice in a coffee grinder or pound in a pestle and mortar to a fine powder. Store in a jar.

A view of the Mekong River at Luang Prabang in...

A view of the Mekong River at Luang Prabang in Laos. (late August 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lao New Year – Su-kwan ceremony

DSC_0022_5We entered the Lao Refugee Centre in East London to find the hall filled with people dressed in embroidered silks and colourful banners festooning the walls. The tables were laid and the phakwan – feast for the soul – stood by the stage on an embroidered white cloth.  This was Pimai, the Lao New Year.  The phakwan is a central part of the celebration, an elaborate sculptural flower display arranged on a tower of silver bowls placed on a tray containing such treats as: whiskey, eggs, cakes, incense, candles, fruit, biscuits and more. Central to this were rows of traditional white ‘baci’ (pronounced basee) strings hung from sticks around and would later be tied around our wrists to bind the wishes of health or luck.

The baci is more usually called the su-kwan in Laos, an older name meaning the calling of the soul. Baci is a corruption of a Cambodian phrase bha sri meaning ‘the rice of prosperity’ and is the proper term for a ceremony involving royalty or high statesmen.

The Su-kwan has its roots in animist pre-history and means the calling or welcoming of the ‘kwan’. Traditionally, Laotians believe that the body is made up of thirty two ‘parts’ or ‘organs’ and that thirty two kwan protect each one of these parts.  The kwan constitute one’s spiritual essence and are part of the body from birth.  It is difficult to illustrate exactly what they are, as they are intrinsic to the body and life force, yet separate.  These kwan have a wandering nature and are only too glad to abscond from the body without warning, causing illness and distress until they return. They can be led astray by other bad spirits, and must be reminded to come home as often as possible by this ceremony.  When someone dies they fly off and join with others to be reincarnated into someone else. DSC_0029_4

The su-kwani is a ritual binding of the kwan to their owner and is a way of conveying good luck and goodwill to all the others present. It is an extremely warm-hearted ceremony and epitomises the generosity of spirit of the Lao people.

In Laos, the ceremony is conducted by a learned priest who chants all the words from memory.   Here is London a respected elder, the president of the Lao Association, Mr Mouongphene, led the ceremony by calling the spirits to cease wandering and return to the body.  He asked the kwan to come and share in the feast and bring well being to those gathered. After this everyone joined in the ceremony taking string from the centre and passing them over the hands of their neighbours to flick away bad luck. The action was repeated towards the wrist to bring in good luck, the strings were then  tied on to bind the spirits while saying blessings.DSC_0034_4

“We do this when someone comes to visit, or a member of the family goes away or at a wedding, when someone is sick, at New Year, even as a ‘treat’ for a child who is causing a problem. It’s very affectionate, like a warm welcome,” my friend Khamtoune explained last week,  “Like when you open a bottle of champagne to celebrate an old friend who has come to visit.”


Salamagundi – An eighteenth century salad of little plates

This early salad dates back to the 1700’s and included a selection of little plates, such as:

Shredded lettuce

Minced pickled herring


Chopped onion with tarragon

Chopped celery

Pickled red cabbage

Hard boiled eggs, separated into white and yolk chopped

Orange and lemon slices

Chopped cooked chicken

An apple sliced thin

All strewn about with watercress, nasturtium flowers and violets.  A dressing would be placed in a little jug on the side.

English Salad Sauce Eliza Acton 1845 – with slightly less salt and sugar than the original

2 hard boiled eggs, yolks only

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp caster sugar

a pinch cayenne

either 150ml cream (or a modern version, 6 tblsp olive oil

2 tblsp wine vinegar

chopped shallot or anchovy may be added if you wish.

Boil the eggs for 15 minutes so the yolks are really hard.  Let them get completely cold.  Mix the sugar, salt and cayenne.  Mash the yolks (add a spoon of water if using cream) and mix them in.  Add the cream/olive oil by degrees and then the vinegar stirring briskly. This is also good drizzled over hot green vegetables.  KEEP IN FRIDGE, COVERED FOR MAX 2 DAYS.

Moss Pillows. Black-a-Tor Copse, Dartmoor

“They are really like pillows,” said our daughter with delight as she squashed her hand into mound of moss until it disappeared up to the elbow. “Lovely.”IMG_0186

Black-a-Tor Copse is a little oasis of sessile Oak woodland surrounded by moorland heath. It’s one of three, small, but perfectly formed, high altitude woods on Dartmoor, the other two being Wistman’s Wood, near Two Bridges and Piles Copse near Plymouth.  These woods are remnants of the ancient forests that used to cover the moor and their rootstock goes back to the Bronze age. The mild winters, high humidity and low levels of air pollution here provide the perfect conditions for many threatened species of mosses, lichens and ferns, some extremely rare.

Diminutive in size it maybe, but what a beauty. Bright green fuzz blankets the boulders, and envelopes the tangle of trees above them. Mound upon mound of mosses, some as un-giving as the granite beneath, some, soft as downy cushions, spread out under the trees and down to the rushing water of the West Okement River.  Ferns fringe along velveteen branches, twigs snag delicate nets of bearded lichens and the wonderful aroma of clean, clear air fills your lungs. The mosses are another landscape in themselves when you look more closely, with tiny flower-like structures, pods and capsules rising in miniature in a myriad of colours.

This is a place to lie quiet, and stay a while.

Our friend Martin Stephens-Hodge, who has walked the moor for over thirty-five years, first introduced us to this wood. He told us it’s rare survival is caused by the rock clitter (debris fallen from Black Tor) creating a dense area of rocks so saplings  to grow between them without being eaten by sheep. It makes one realise that, without grazing animals, Dartmoor might be a very different place.

I couldn’t find any myths relating to this particular copse but in the past these singular places were known as eerie and frightening.  Wistman’s Wood was notorious as the home of diabolical hounds and considered the most haunted place on Dartmoor.  Things have changed, and around here, these kind of woods are seen as spiritual places, full of mystical energy and an inspiration to artists.

“You sit in Black-a-Tor Copse on your own, and you will feel it,” Martin told me on our first visit, and then with a big wink, “go on Mid-summers Eve though, and you might even see the little people.”

I think you are more likely to come across someone with an easel or a rucksack so start out early, it’s well worth it.

Martin Stephens-Hodge, is a Dartmoor guide and expert on the moor’s archaeology, botany, geology and meteorology.  For a for a small charge he guides walks custom built to individuals or groups 3hours walks, 1/2 day or  1 day.  Fascinating. To Book tel: 01647 231 564 and ask for Martin.


The walk took us 3 hours round trip from Meldon reservoir near Okehampton. AA Map below:

Keep left and go past Meldon dam on your right.IMG_0155

IMG_0159Keep to the path around the reservoir until you come to a little bridge, cross it.

Later, cross another little bridge and keep left when the road forks.IMG_0160

It gets a bit boggy.

It can be boggy, so don't fall in like I did, up to my knee, though wet jeans dry surprisingly quickly.

It can be boggy, so don’t fall in like I did, up to my knee, though wet jeans dry surprisingly quickly.



There it is, the smudge on the left of the picture.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Garlicky Feta and Fennel seeds

DSC_0015_4I often serve this tasty dish to the lone vegetarian when I only have one at a table of carnivores.  The dish can be eaten hot or cold (though you don’t cook the squash with the filling) and is a hearty addition to a summer buffet or picnic.


Mix one pack of broken up feta cheese (200-250 g) with:

1 clove of crushed garlic, 1/2 tsp of coriander seeds crushed and 1/2 tsp fennel seeds, one chopped fresh chilli (optional) and a glug of olive oil. Leave to meld while you cook the squash.

Slice a butternut squash in half and remove seeds. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with Maldon sea salt and roast until tender. Take the squash from the oven and stuff with the feta cheese mixture, sprinkle with sliced black olives, and top with fresh coriander or parsley. Yum.

Green Sauce for Spring, Harissa in hope of heat.

It’s raining so I am making some springy sauces. Salsa Verde is very versatile and is a traditional Italian accompaniment to fish or lamb. The anchovies meld into the sauce to give it that savoury umami depth of flavour we all love. The sauce can also be diluted with a little more oil and/or vinegar to make a wonderful potato salad or a drizzle it over steamed broccoli. You can use it as a base on garlicky toast before adding chopped tomato or roasted peppers or just add a spoon to various vinaigrettes. I make a jar at a time and keep it in the fridge.

DSC_0016_2Green Sauce)

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 bunch of basil

a handful of mint leaves

3 garlic cloves

100g Capers drained and rinsed

50g Anchovy fillets (in oil)

2 tblsp red wine vinegar

5 tblsp Extra-virgin olive oil

1 tblsp Dijon mustard

Maldon salt and ground black pepper to taste

Chop the parsley and mint, peel the garlic, and chop with the capers and anchovies. Place together in a bowl and cover with olive oil. Stir in the mustard and vinegar, season and add more olive oil for a looser sauce (or put everything in the magimix and whiz). Jar it.

Tunisian Harissa paste

DSC_0024_4This is very, very hot. There are many variations of this sauce but I prefer the smoky version we ate in Tunisia which included smoked sweet paprika. This can be a dip, part of a marinade recipe (excellent with chicken), added to tomato sauces and stews to give them some zing, or just something to dab on the edge of you plate for added spice.

To make a jar

I cup small dried chillies softened in boiling water for 15 minutes.

5 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp coriander powder
1tsp sweet smoked paprika1tsp caraway seeds

1 tsp. salt

juice half a lemon

a glug Olive oil then more to jar.

DSC_0020_5Place the chillies in a bowl, bring some water to the boil and pour over the chillies. Leave them to soak for 15 minutes then drain.

Place all the ingredients if a food processor until you have a smooth paste or grind them together in a mortar and pestle. Add more olive oil if you want looser or keep it as a stiff paste.

Store in a well sealed jar in the refrigerator for up to 3 months, once upon use it in a couple of weeks.