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.

wild greens pie

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Spending so much time outside over the last few sunny weekends has totally renewed  my passion for eating from the garden. As has the plentiful supply of purple sprouting broccoli.

A couple of months ago my PSB was looking so healthy, I was already anticipating a March glut. Planning bruschetta heaped with PSB and drizzled with chilli oil, PSB with pasta, anchovies, pine nuts and garlic, piles of lemony PSB alongside simply cooked fish. Then it snowed and was cold. And snowed and was cold some more.

I love the wildlife in and around our garden and this year it seems as if a dearth of easy food has made lots of creatures more daring in daylight hours. We have an almost daily visit by a barn owl very early in the evening, which is lovely. When the greedy pigeons and muntjac start nibbling my PSB it isn’t quite as lovely. I netted it carefully, then it snowed and the weight of the snow played havoc with the nets. The PSB was looking decidedly sorry for itself.

Which is why coming back to the kitchen with baskets of the stuff is making me quite so happy at the moment. I’m loving spotting parsley that seems to have self-seeded itself from last year; chives are starting to really flourish, sorrel is being picked for salads and the lovage and angelica seem to be growing by the minute. In my head I hardly need to go to the shops.

The reality of course is that it’ll be a while until there’s a plentiful supply of cultivated veggies from the garden.  Much as I loved cooking the Anchovy, Parmesan and PSB tart from Louisa at Chez Foti and am still not bored of PSB pasta, we can’t really eat PSB for EVERY meal.

Thank goodness then for weeds. The nettles and ground elder are growing twice as rapidly as anything I’ve planted of course. So how great that they’re both so nutritious. Full of iron, vitamins and natural histamine, stingers are perfect for cooking with at the moment, still young and tender.

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I’ve added them to ricotta for a cannelloni filling and, inspired by Italian uses for wild greens, made torta verde. You need to wear long sleeves and gloves for picking nettles of course, but you’ll find that once cooked they lose their sting. And for anyone who’s suffered lots of nettle stings in the past, eating your enemy isn’t exactly sweet revenge, but very tasty.

Anne from  Life in Mud Spattered Boots has a great recipe for nettle soup and I love Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ideas for making nettle tea as a Spring tonic (sweetening it with honey and adding a squeeze of lemon) or just adding a knob of butter, a pinch of nutmeg and seasoning to cooked nettles to serve simply as a green vegetable.

This time though, I made wild greens pie. I used a mix of nettles, parsley, spinach, beetroot tops and sorrel but if I’d been able to venture further than the garden yesterday, I would’ve added wild garlic too. Must have a walk in the garlic woods soon, especially as Liz Knight of Forage Fine Foods has inspired me to be more inventive in cooking with it. I used cultivated garlic and Egyptian walking onions for my allium fix here, but again, this is a recipe that you can adapt according to what’s good in the garden or hedgerow.

I would use this ricotta and greens mix to fill ravioli too, in fact I think it’s inspired by Italian recipes, as well as by a Greek Courgette Pie in Sarah Raven’s brilliant Garden Cookbook.

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Wild Greens Pie

Ingredients

A colander full of wild greens/greens from the garden (can include nettle tops, spinach, chard, sorrel, wild garlic leaves, parsley, ground elder)

Egyptian walking onions or a few spring onions or young leeks, chopped

A garlic clove chopped, or wild garlic

150ml olive oil

1 pack of filo pastry

1 tub of ricotta

2 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 200C. Fry the garlic and onions in a little of the olive oil for a few minutes. Wash the greens well, then add to the pan with the garlic and sweat gently until wilted. If you have large leaves/clumps of greens you can snip with scissors.

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When cool, mix the greens with the ricotta, eggs and season with salt and pepper. Separate out 6 filo sheets and brush them with oil. Place 3 of the sheets in the base of an oven tray, one oiled sheet placed on top of the next (I’m very clumsy at this sort of thing, but a few torn sheets honestly don’t interfere with this pie looking and tasting lovely).

Place the ricotta/greens mixture in an oblong in the middle of the sheets, then fold the sheets around it, brusing with oil as you go. Place another filo sheet on top and brush with oil, and repeat with 2 more sheets. Brush with oil, and scatter with sesame seeds if you like. Put the pie in the preheated oven and cook for about 1/2 hour until the pastry is golden.

Great with a tomato salad – although faced with my normal reluctance to get in the car, rather than spend more time in the garden, we ate this with a salad of herbs yesterday.

After planting potatoes, making paths, weeding and planting seeds we were very hungry. Which is my excuse for totally forgetting to take a photo of the finished pie, before there was only one slice left!

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