but me in a quiet
that empty square
between fence and curb and
grows just weeds and dirt but
One of our most memorable meals came about spontaneously. We were at the Vic Markets with a friend when we saw big bunches of borage. ‘I once saw a recipe for borage and stinging nettle ravioli,’ I said. 'Oh?' said my friend, 'There are lots of stinging nettles at the property...' - his country block about an hour's drive out of Melbourne. There was a moment’s pause, then we looked at each other and grinned.
It was time for a day trip. We bought the borage and some ricotta; we bought provisions for a picnic; and then we headed up to North Blackwood, sat ourselves atop our favourite ridge, and ate lunch. After a necessary snooze, we wandered down the hill with rubber gloves and shopping bags and picked stinging nettles.
The things you do when you have no kids.
And yet last week, as I was walking between kinder and school, I found a patch of stinging nettles growing on a verge in a quiet street. The shoots were vibrantly green, bursting with health, and I remembered our long-ago dinner with a smile.
Despite having no gloves I grasped the nettle, so to speak. I always carry a bag for spontaneous gleaning, and so I carefully wrapped the young tips of the nettles in the fabric of the bag and pinched them off, clump by clump. One or two stings were enough to remind me I was alive; bag full, I headed off to school with the makings of dinner, a happy memory and a whistle.
Stinging Nettle and Borage Tart
For the pastry
For the filling
Make the pastry: (This is exactly the same base as Onion Tart.) Place the flour, a pinch of salt and the butter in a food processor. Process for 30 seconds, or until the butter and flour are incorporated; there will be no loose flour flying around. Add the water a tablespoon at a time, and process for another 30 seconds to a minute or until the mixture resembles tiny soft pebbles.
Flour the bench and a rolling pin. Tip the pastry onto the bench, and gently form into a flat disc with your hands. Roll it out, rolling from the centre to the edge and turning 90 degrees between each roll, until it fits your dish. (Mine is 25cm in diameter.) Drape the pastry over the rolling pin and lift it carefully into the dish. Pat into place. Trim the edges. Place the dish into the freezer, and leave it there until you need it.
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Use kitchen scissors to snip the nettle leaves from their stems. Cut the thick stems from the borage.
Boil a pot of water. Wash your greens well, and chop coarsely. Blanch the greens in several batches, cooking each batch for a minute then scooping it out to drain in a colander. Leave to cool.
Grate the cheese. Beat the eggs lightly, then whisk in the milk and marjoram. Season.
Remove the tart shell from the freezer. Spread the grated cheese over the base. Spoon the greens over the cheese, then gently pour in the egg mixture. Strew pine nuts over the top, if you wish, then slip the tart into the oven for 45 minutes or until the top is puffy and there is just a very slight wobble in the centre.
Leave to cool for at least ten minutes, during which time it will set further. Serve with a crunchy sort of salad on the side.
I am indebted to Jamie Oliver for the particular combination of stinging nettles, borage leaves and marjoram, which features in a ravioli recipe in The Naked Chef.
(Backyard: borage, eggs, marjoram. Gleaned locally: stinging nettles. Locally sourced: milk. Not particularly local: flour, butter, cheese, pine nuts, salt, pepper.)
Winter is drawing to a close and things are fairly quiet in the garden – and yet we have stars in our eyes. Small, blue, velvety stars: they are, of course, borage flowers.
Borage self-seeds around my garden; there is always some on the go. At the end of winter, the plants go to seed, erupting in grey hairy fireworks. At the end of each stem is a spray of blue stars; and the stars are alive with honeybees.
I don’t see borage much, except in my garden; and I don’t know why it is so underused. It is attractive, whether in its young green structural phase or its grey and shabby flowering, and all parts are good eating. Perhaps it does not transport well; thus it is a special delight for the home gardener. Perhaps, too, the name ‘borage’ is too earthy, and lands with too much of a thump? It certainly has none of the grace of ‘angelica’ or ‘fritillary’, whose names roll off the tongue. The leaves are strong, thick and hairy; they can hold the name – but the flowers need another, a name which evokes shooting stars, the morning sky the other side of dawn, the colour of my husband’s eyes.
Indian style. Float the flowers in a cup of white wine and let yourself be enchanted.
To pick the flowers, grasp a petal and gently tug; the whole flower will pop right off the plant. Gather a small bowlful and serve within an hour, before the blossoms wilt. Like the leaves, the flowers impart the mildest whiff of cucumber; and their whimsy charms all diners, whether apian, romantic, or childlike.
I like to sprinkle borage flowers over salad. I serve them with another underutilised green, salad burnet, a perennial which grows in winter shade; we have it as a groundcover under a large pear tree where it spreads quickly. I also use microgreens allowed to grow two inches tall: Siberian kale, beet leaves, mizuna and little lettuces; baby rocket leaves; and baby mallow. Tossed gently in a bowl with local lemon juice, a little Victorian flake salt, and some olive oil from the Grampians this is food which needs no recipe and gladdens the heart: it is simple, sustainable, perfect.
What, you might well ask, is that jar of disgusting khaki paste in the photograph?
Is it some sort of slop fed to babies, or the results that come out several hours later? Is it a particularly ugly parsley pesto? Is it a raw vegan punishment for those who ate too much meat in a previous life?
No, my friends, it is none of these things. Instead, it is pure genius: concentrated veggie stock.
I often make my own liquid veggie stock, a golden brew simmered for hours and stored in the freezer in cup-sized portions for later use. But there are times when I need flavour without liquid; and that’s when I turn to this concentrated stock.
It has none of the metallic overtones of commercial veggie stocks, none of the gluten, and no MSG. It’s just veggies and herbs cooked to a paste and preserved with a bucket of salt. Start with a tablespoon or so, added to curries, soups or stews, then add more if needed.
Thanks to Mandi who told me about it, and her brother Simon who had the flash of pure genius. I should add that they both put a tomato in their stock, but at this time of the year, when tomatoes come from Whoop-Whoop, I leave it out.
Gluten Free Quick and Easy Concentrated Veggie Stock
- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
Place all the veggies and herbs into a food processor or blender. Pulse-chop until it looks like pesto.
Warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan. Scrape the whizzed veggies into the pan, and bring to a slow boil. Let it simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or longer if you like (the longer you cook it, the deeper the flavour). Stir regularly to ensure it doesn’t stick. When it no longer smells like raw carrot juice and most of the liquid has evaporated, add the salt.
Cook for a few more minutes, stirring constantly, until the salt has dissolved.
Scrape it into a jar, and store it in your fridge. It keeps for weeks. Use a tablespoon or so where you would otherwise use a stock cube.
(Miss Cleverpants (ie me) thought she’d turn it into stock cubes via an ice cube tray, but the salt prevents it from freezing. So keep it in a jar in the fridge as instructed. The salt will preserve it.)
(Backyard: parsley, rosemary, thyme, bay. Melbourne outskirts: celery, garlic, mushrooms. Victoria: olive oil, salt. Somewhere in Australia: onion, carrots.)