Come spring, earthy nettles are available at many farmers’ markets. Don’t be intimidated by the “stinging” in the name — water removes the bite, so they have a taste similar to spinach or other greens. Here, they’re blanched and sauteed with minced chile and garlic for a simple meatless pasta that doesn’t skimp on flavor.
Orecchiette with Butter-Braised Nettles
12 oz. (375 g.) stinging nettles
Fine sea salt
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small fresh hot chile, minced, or a generous pinch of red pepper flakes
1 lb. (500 g.) dried orecchiette or other short, sturdy pasta
3/4 cup (3 oz./90 g.) freshly grated pecorino romano cheese
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Wearing gloves to prevent stinging, cut the tough stems off the nettles and rinse well. Using the gloves or tongs, place in the boiling water and blanch until wilted, 1-2 minutes. Drain and let cool, then chop coarsely. Fill the pot with fresh water. Salt generously and bring to a boil.
While the water is heating, in a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the garlic and chile and stir to coat with the fat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the garlic is fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add the nettles and 1 teaspoon salt. Using tongs, toss the greens to coat well. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook gently, stirring from time to time, until the greens are tender, about 10 minutes.
Add the orecchiette to the boiling water and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes or according to the package directions. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./125 ml.) of the cooking water. Transfer the pasta to the pan with the greens and toss well to combine. Add a splash or two of the pasta-cooking water to loosen the sauce, if needed. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the pasta and toss again. Divide among 4 shallow bowls, garnish each serving with some of the remaining cheese, and serve. Serves 4.