Dandelion spring

April 2010

Always takes a a day or 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 to get rolling again, find again my "cobblestone legs" so to speak.... as I just returned to Paris from the Bay Area and sundry side trips to mountains and other seasides. 3 jam-packed weeks of observing the rain and snow, enjoying family and friends, cooking and savoring.

I couldn't get away from dandelion greens... early spring they come out en masse. And I can't say I wanted to get away from them.
I am a fan of those brightly bitter "tooth" shaped leaves: dente di leone in Italian. Difficult it was not to grab a bunch or two or three... they were on vegetable stands and in produce sections everywhere I went: the Derby and Temescal farmer's markets, Berkeley Bowl, Rainbow Grocery, Olympia Food Co-op in WA... And to boot, quite a tonic and vitamin-mineral packed plant dandelion is, from the root to the flower. And to think that most of us grew up thinking of it as a weed. Best to gather them up yourself.. from empty lots, backyards, hillsides... That thrilling sense of freely sharing in Earth's bounty. If  missed them this springtime, they can find again in fall — best to pick them before they flower.

My 2nd edition Bay Area cooking class series was full of flavor and flair... 3 evenings of eager hands and expectant palates , which I think - hope - were well satiated. And dandelion leaves were definitely on the menu: they  went into the Torta Pasqualina, were served wilted with potato gnocchi, and almost ended up in the pesto. (Know that I think of it, I'll have to play with that idea...)

You can read what Sarah Henry had to say  on her blog and on KQED's BayAreaBites.

Since Easter, or Bunny Day, or Multi-Colored Egg Day is right around the corner, and Torta Pasqualina is a typical dish from Italy's Ligurian region, generally served at Easter — hence its name — thought I'd give you the recipe. You might be inspired to make it in the next couple of weeks. This is one ancient savory and quite delectable pie... having been baked in ovens as far back as the 1400s.

Swiss chard is the traditional leafy green in the filling, although I like to use a blend of spring’s varied offerings (including dandelion) - for their bright bitterness. Amazingly in times past the layers of pastry, top and bottom, numbered 33 — the age of Jesus when he died. Imagine the rolling involved! The more “pragmatic” number of 4 (for the seasons perhaps) is now the prevalent quantity.

A work of love it is to fashion, but Torta Pasuqalina is both a feast for the eyes and an absolutely delectable dish…

TORTA PASQUALINA : serves 8 - 10

pastry dough :
350 ml / 1 ½ C / 12 oz cold water
600 gr / 6 C / 22 oz unbleached white flour
35 ml / 2 tBsp extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp unrefined sea salt

12-inch springform pan or equivalent

filling :
1.2 kg / 3.5 lbs leafy greens: Swiss chard, kale, spinach, dandelion, beet, turnip...
4 tBsp chopped red onion
3 sprigs fresh marjoram, leaves removed
Zest of ½ lemon, scrubbed and dried
110 gr / 4 oz Parmigaino-Reggiano
500 gr / 2 ½ C / 18 oz  sheep ricotta
11 kindly-reared eggs
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Unrefined sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil

for the dough :
— Combine the sifted flour, olive oil, and water in a bowl. Once the liquids are incorporated into the flour, pour out onto a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes; the dough should be smooth and elastic, exhibiting “blisters” as you fold it over. (You can also knead it in a Kitchen Aid with a dough hook, on speed 2 for no more than 2 minutes.) Cover with a towel and set aside for 1 hour.

for the filling :
—  Wash the greens. Transfer to a skillet without spinning dry (in 3 - 4 batches) and cook covered until wilted, 3 – 5 minutes. Transfer each batch to a strainer.  Add a few splashes of water to the skillet if needed. When cool, squeeze out any excess water then finely chop: flatten the mass of leaves on a cutting board, cut crosswise every ½ inch and likewise lengthwise.
— Sauté the onion in a heated drizzle of olive oil over medium–low heat until transparent, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Add the chopped greens and and cook over medium heat for 4 – 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and stir in 2 tBsp olive oil, marjoram leaves, lemon zest, 50 gr / ¼ C / 2 oz of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Season with sea salt to taste and a few twists of freshly ground pepper.
— In a second bowl whisk the ricotta, nutmeg, 2 eggs,
30 gr / 3 tBsp / 1 oz of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a couple generous pinches of sea salt to a creamy consistency.

for the pie :
— Preheat the oven to 180 ˚C (350 ˚F).
— Oil the bottom and sides of the cake pan with olive oil. Cut the pastry dough into 4 pieces: 2 larger (300 gr), 2 smaller (180 gr), and form them into balls. On a well-floured surface, roll one of the larger balls out quite thin (the thickness of a linen towel) and large enough so that it will generously overlap the edges of the cake pan. Line the cake pan with this sheet of dough and generously brush both the bottom and sides with olive oil. Roll out the second larger ball of dough to the similar dimensions and place it on top of the first sheet, letting the excess hang over the edge of the pan.

 — Fill the bottom of the pan with the greens, leveling off the surface. Cover with the ricotta mixture, leveling off the surface. Making 9 deep wells in a circle toward the outer edge of the pan, but not too close to the edge, and one in the center. Break each egg, one by one, and separate the yolk, sliding it gently into one of the wells (be careful not to break it). Continue with the rest of the eggs. When all of the wells have been filled, cover the top with a few tablespoons of the egg whites (whisk them a bit at first for easier spreading. Sprinkle with 30 gr / 3 tBsp / 1 oz  of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

— Roll out one of the smaller balls of dough to the same thickness as above and lay it over the top of the pan, letting the excess hang over the edges. Generously brush it with olive oil. Roll out the last ball of dough and lay it over the top. Take a kitchen scissor and cut off all but ½ - ¾ inch of the excess dough then fold inward to form a sort of cord, sealing the pie. Take a fork and press downward on the cord all around the pan, flattening it. Brush the top with olive oil.  Bake in the oven on the middle rack for 45 minutes. Let cool slightly before cutting.

Note : Torta Pasqualina can also be made earlier in the day and served at room temperature

Wine note : The perfect wine would be a Cinque Terre doc from Liguria - difficult to find in the States.  A close second might be a biodynamically-grown Sauvignon Blanc or Romorantin from the Loire Valley: Noella Morantin, Mikael Bouges, Hervé Villemade, Clos Roche Blanche... 

(Cinque Terre DOC is a white wine from the provincia della Spezia in Liguria, Italy along the Ligurian Riviera: a suite of five fishing villages whose narrowly terraced vineyards are precariously carved into steep cliffs towering above the sea. A sumptuously dry and delicately floral wine from a blend of Bosco, Albarola, and Vermintino grapes, it is perfectly suited for the savory tarts, farinata, and fresh anchovies of  the region.)