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saffronbunny - food - blogger - cornwall

My mum once wrote a notebook of recipes for one of my brothers when he went to university. One of these recipes was entitled: Marmite on toast. Thereby making it a dish in its own right. Marmite on Toast. I laughed then. I wouldn’t now.

It should have read: Marmite on toast with Lots of Salty Full Fat Cornish Butter, and you’re almost there. Add in to the mix a strong brew and white bread and I am all over it. The ultimate comfort food so quintessentially British that our more sophisticated gastronomic neighbours would rather hurl themselves onto a burning pile of oily fish and ripe tomatoes than go anywhere near the filthy brown (unnervingly shiny) goo.

To add fuel to the fire, or rather olive oil to that already burning pile, have you ever tried spaghetti, butter and marmite? No? Do it. Nigella raves about it, referencing Anna del Conte as her source and justifying it as an Italian tradition derived from using leftover stock with spaghetti. No need for that. Put the spaghetti on in the normal packet way, chuck a knob of butter into a saucepan, a teaspoon of Marmite and some (a dessertspoon or two) of the pasta jus to lubricate, add to pasta and if you’ve got it, sprinkle a bit of Parmesan on top (or Cheddar, come on). Mangez. Mangia. ‘ave it. Etc.

I find that Marmite slips under simple dishes in a very satisfying manner, not unlike a special piece of well-fitted underwear: on toast under baked beans, under scrambled eggs (or any egg for that matter) or melted cheese for an English rarebit. Most useful of all is its ability to masquerade as a vegetarian stock; many a dish of mine brinkering on the I’ve-made-it-up-but-not-quite-pulled-it-off has been resurrected with a generous teaspoon of Marmite; gravies, glaze and other things not beginning with ‘g’ – rims of cocktails are being marmite-d, there are cakes, roast potatoes but as yet, no beauty treatment. It’s only a matter of time.

I have a huge amount of love for Marmite. I have chased its bulbous brown figure down the aisles of many a foreign supermarket with increasing success. It’s been welcomed back into the lives of the Danes after a three-year ban and now there’s even more of a reason not to shop at Tesco and to have voted ‘remain’. 

Get more about Marmite from the  Ministry of Marmite and there is also the very comprehensive Marmite cook book. Oh and it’s worth mentioning Ms Marmite Lover, a well-respected food blogger with a well-respected name.

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Risotto with nettles

Anyone who has read Anna del Conte’s eponymous  (and fabulous) wartime novel will know that food infuses some of the most momentous occasions of her life: the chapter subtitled Risotto with nettles or risotto alle ortiche (echoing the latin urtica doica for our own stinging nettles) combines the recipe with execution, being fired at while cycling and the shooting of partisans. I recommend a more passivist approach to these overlooked and oft-ignored, nutritional powerhouses that we see as a weed: a pair of gloves, a plastic bag and some scissors. Nettles are nature’s own spinach (not that spinach isn’t ‘natural’, I’m just thinking of the stuff in chlorinated bags) and then some.

They are probably the most common of all our wild edible plants and are so good at making use of minerals and nitrogen that they score high in the nourishment stakes, containing impressive levels of vitamins A and C, 2.3 per cent by weight of iron and a massive 5.5 per cent of protein (source: Food For Free, Richard Mabey). They deserve a far higher ranking on our culinary and literal tables, not just as pretty packaging on Yarg cheese, but as a fully integrated, staple on our plates, especially at this time of year when the tender young leaves are appearing alongside wild garlic and the first tentative shoots of bluebells.

Pick the first two or four leaves from the top of the plants, follow del Conte’s recipe for risotto below or Richard Mabey’s simple nettle soup and you will never look at them as a weed again. Or chuck some leaves into boiling water for a tasty and healthy brew and avoid being ‘stung’ for a few poor quality bags in a pretty Twinnings box. I would finish by manipulating a well-known quote, “…do as the Romans do” or did, but they used to flagellate themselves with nettles to keep warm apparently and to ward of rheumatism. Possibly something our brave Cornish surfers could look into? But I digress …

Best time to pick nettles: March, although any time from late February to early June is fine. After June, the older leaves contain crystalline particles which make the texture gritty, giving a bitter taste and possible laxative effect.

Nettle Soup

  • 4 large handfuls nettle tops
  • 1 large onion
  • 50g/2oz butter
  • 2 potatoes (chopped into small cubes)
  • 11 (2 pints) vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon crème fraiche
  • Seasoning, including some grated nutmeg

Method

  1. Strip the nettles from the thicker stalks and wash
  2. Melt butter and simmer chopped onion until golden
  3. Add nettles and chopped potatoes, cook for 2/3 minutes
  4. Add stock and simmer for 20 minutes, using a wooden spoon to crush the potatoes from time to time.
  5. Add seasoning, a little grated nutmeg and serve with a swirl of crème fraiche or liquidize for a smooth soup. Eat with Baker Tom’s sourdough bread.

Yum!

Anna del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles (from Risotto with Nettles, A Memoir with Food)

  • 300g nettle shoots
  • Sea salt
  • 2 shallots or 1 small onion, very finely chopped
  • 60g unsalted butter
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • 300g Arborio rice
  • 4 tbsp double cream
  • 60g freshly grated parmesan

Pick the leaves and discard the stalks. Wash in 2 or 3 changes of water. Put nettles in a saucepan with 1 tsp salt and boil over high heat till cooked. Drain but keep the liquid. Put nettles in a sieve over a bowl to catch the liquid.

Sauté the onions (or shallots), very gently, till soft. Heat the stock and keep at simmering point. Squeeze all the liquid out of the nettles into the bowl. Chop them coarsely and add to the onions or shallots. Sauté for a minute, stirring constantly then add the rice and fry till the outside of the grains are translucent.

Pour the nettle liquid into the stock (simmering) and then add about 150ml of stock to the rice. Mix well. Once absorbed, add another ladleful and continue adding and stirring (frequently but not all the time) until the rice is cooked. Should take about 20 mins.

Take the pan off the heat, add the cream, the rest of the butter and the cheese. Leave it to rest for a couple of mins, then stir vigorously to incorporate the butter and cheese so that the risotto becomes creamy. Serve immediately, sprinkling over the remaining cheese.