torta verde with jack by the hedge

I’ve been taking a tip from resourceful Italians again, adding foraged greens to the first meagre pickings from the garden and adding them to ricotta and parmesan for a tasty pie.

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I have to admit that I didn’t actually venture far from the garden in ‘foraging’ for this pie though. While gardening I keep noticing Jack-by-the-hedge springing out everywhere. It obviously says a lot about my shoddy weeding that it’s more a case of Jack-by-the-compost heap, Jack-by-the-ox-eye-daisies and, more annoyingly, Jack-by-the-raspberries.

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With so many ‘weeds’ about, I’ve decided the best approach is to eat them. No point fretting about all those pesky weeds, best to just bake a pie with them. So I set to enthusiastically picking the top leaves of some of the Jack-by-the-hedge, adding them to the ever-trusty chard, cavolo nero, leaves of the perpetual spinach that is fast going to seed, rocket, a few tender nettles (they’re mainly too big now though) and some of the beet tops that soon need pulling up. Soon I had quite a pile of healthy greens in the kitchen.

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Jack-by-the-hedge is also known as poor man’s mustard, hedge garlic and wild mustard and has a high Vitamin A & C content. The leaves, white flowers and seed pods are all edible but I use mainly the upper leaves. They have a bitter taste, but like kale, nettles and rocket are great with parmesan and ricotta in pasta sauces, pesto and pie fillings.

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I made a jar of pesto, mainly with the Jack-by-the-hedge and the rocket, with pumpkin seeds, olive oil and parmesan, using the same sort of quantities as in wild garlic pesto or the kale pesto I made here.

I love this sort of green mixture in a wild greens filo pastry pie too, but maybe a week including children’s parties and a fair bit of indulgent eating had me craving the healthy option of a Torta Verde, where the dough/pastry base is made from olive oil and flour. I wrote about Torta Verde here for Smallholder magazine, when describing how we can learn a lot from Ligurians in foraging our way out of the hungry gap. This version was crammed full of greens, yet as usual when ricotta and parmesan are involved, scoffed happily by my 5 year old. Despite still viewing greens with suspicion in lots of dishes, Ruby loves pesto too, hence my passion for making it with whatever greens are seasonal.

Leftovers are proving very handy for lunches, slices transport easily and so are great for picnics. So I’d like to enter it in the lovely seasonal Four Seasons Food Challenge hosted by Anneli of Delicieux and Louisa of Chez Foti.

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And as this makes use of very seasonal weeds, would love to enter it for Ren Behan’s June Simple and in Season.

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Recipe for Torta Verde

Pastry/dough base:

200g strong white bread flour

3 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch salt

80 ml warm water

For the filling::

400g of greens (any mixture of jack-by-the-hedge, nettles, chard, cavolo nero, spinach can be used)

100g ricotta cheese

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

8 tablespoons grated parmesan (or

similar hard English cheese)

To make pastry, sift flour into large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the oil and salt and mix well, adding warm water a little at a time to form a soft, not sticky dough. Wrap in clingfilm and pop in the fridge while you make the filling.

Wash the greens well and barely cook in the water left clinging to them until they wilt. Drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop finely (I find this easy to do with scissors) then add to ricotta, mix with egg and nutmeg. Mix in half of the parmesan and season with salt and pepper to taste.

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Roll the pastry out to fill a well-greased deep cake tin or pie dish, fill the middle with green/ricotta filling and crimp around the edges – I do this very clumsily, but then this is a very rustic pie. Sprinkle with the remaining parmesan and drizzle with olive oil. Bake for 40 mins in an oven preheated to 180 C.

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This was scoffed happily by all of us. Even if Guy now eyes me suspiciously when he sees me with a bucket of weeds on an evening. Not realising I’m heading for the compost heap, he wonders if I’m harvesting dinner.

Obviously, if you’re using wild greens for this pie, make sure you have a good book for identification or are with an experienced forager. You can of course fill Torta Verde with completely home-grown cultivated greens too.

Obsessive about foraging

I re-read an article today that I wrote a while ago about foraging for wild food in Liguria. Noticing that I’d described the Ligurians as ‘having a passion for foraging verging on the obsessive’ I had to cringe. Not that I’d changed my opinion of the wonderful enthusiasm that many Italians seem to have when it comes to making the most of wild food. Just that I had to admit that pot and kettle sprang to mind when it came to ‘obsessive’.

Obsessive about foraging

Having just nipped up our track and filled a wheelbarrow with comfrey, I seemed to be developing a slightly addictive habit for foraging myself. And not just for food.

I’ve obviously been happily scouring the hedgerows for elderflowers recently for cordials and champagne and earlier in the year the hedgerows were an excellent source of extra greens. During the Spring/early summer ‘hungry gap’ I’m a big fan of adding a few nettles to the meagre supple of spinach and chard in the garden.  They’re great for soups or adding to ricotta for Italian style Torta Verde or pasta fillings. I’ve already recounted the wild garlic foraging expedition I went on with Ruby a month or so ago.  And of course, later on in the summer I’ll be looking forward to blackberrying. While a trip to the seaside has me thinking about samphire and edible treasures in rockpools.

But recently I’ve found myself scouring the hedgerows for things other than meals. When I’m short of veggies for the pigs I reach for a fork and head off for dandelions and docks.  In fact I’ve actually started to think of dandelions as a cut-and-come-again crop. When I lazily attempt to pull them up from the very wet soil (the pigs love the roots) with my hands rather than find a fork or trowel and only the leaves come away in my hands, I throw them to the piggies. Thinking, oh well, they’ll grow again, providing more piggy treats for another day.

The compost heap has also started to benefit. A big fan of comfrey in the garden, I’ve planted lots in all sorts of corners where it’s difficult to grow anything else. Thinking all the time of the wonderful feed for the garden it provides. I strip the leaves and use it as a mulch around veggies and add it to the compost heap along with nettles as they’ll both speed up the composting as well as adding loads of nutrients. But although it’ll no doubt soon be taking over the garden, as it’s recently planted I found myself heading further afield for more rampant comfrey to tide me over.

While heading off with the wheelbarrow for comfrey, I couldn’t help think about the sloes that would be great for gin later in the year and how, after the elderflowers have turned to elderberries, I wouldn’t mind trying elderberry wine this year. A tot of either will convince me that obsessive isn’t a bad thing.

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