Cooking with nettles, not unlike cooking with offal, always reminds me of a painting of a funeral. Not any painting of a funeral rather just this one painting of a funeral, Gustave Courbet’s Un enterrement à Ornans (A burial at Ornans). It’s an imperious painting, oil on canvas and ten by twenty-two feet. It’s a massive tableau in browns & grays of a provincial funeral (his uncle’s as a matter of fact), and it’s beautifully ugly. But to a certain set back in 1850 it was, instead, offensive, presumptuous. Even rude. Because you see, ten by twenty-two oil on canvas was a space reserved for velvet narratives, gilded horses. Kings. History. Blues & reds. Nobility. Not actual peasants at an actual funeral. Low subjects on a grand scale, “realism”. It was a fundamental shift in what was perceived as a worthwhile subject and a precursor to modernist painting. While the moderns would depart from the realists stylistically, I think the concept, the fascination with low subjects, with real life, as the content of high art is still with us, this legacy of realism. It was revolutionary at the time. There is no better formulation of it, in my estimation, than Baudelaire’s in one of my favorite essays, De l’Héroïsme de la Vie Moderne (On the Heroism of the Modern Life):
“The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences – criminals and kept women – which drift about in the underworld of a great city…we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.”
Nettles and stomach lining are, in my estimation, the criminals and kept women of the culinary world, the browns and grays of Courbet, and I think this, the zeitgeist of the 1840’s, is still alive and well when we see these ingredients on fine dining menus, stinging nettles at the French Laundry and organ meat at 11 Madison Park. But this doesn’t surprise us at all, some of us even yawn and call it fashion. The elevation of low subjects on a grand scale is common place now, and that’s always the pyrrhic victory of any cultural revolution, it always seems to jump the shark. But it wasn’t always so, and still, it reminds me of that painting of a funeral, of Baudelaire’s criminals and kept women, of that pageant that is the ugly, the mundane, the quotidian, the weeds, the guts. And of how grateful I am that I live in a time when there’s an audience for the beauty in all of it. Life is far more interesting with weeds & guts, and we’re a lot better off learning to love them because they certainly aren’t going anywhere.
I’ll offer, at best, a dispassionate apology for the art history lesson, both if it bored you or if you are fresher than me & found it awfully impoverished, but in another life modernism was a love of mine, and I ate, slept, and breathed Baudelaire along with my gin. It’s still dear to me, and I think about it often, even if I do spend more time thinking about pie crusts than the philosophical and socio-cultural implications of pigments. I don’t, however, apologize if you find my drawing parallels between nettle cakes and art history pretentious. Because that’s just a very boring way of looking at it!
So I give you my tribute to Courbet’s Un enterrement à Ornans & Baudelaire’s On the Heroism of the Modern Life. It’s an homage to the low as the high, a take on eggs Benedict, that posh hangover cure. It features purple asparagus thicker than my thumbs, asparagus so prized I actually had a nightmare about not getting to the market in time to get my paws on them last week. And it, my most precious produce, alongside the hairy, stinging dead nettles. The ancient quinoa. The glorious egg. Miraculous mayonnaise. Dark and spicy greens. Wonderfully salty southern cured ham. And a few of my favorite mustard colored pak choi flowers because I will always and forever eat flowers at any opportunity. It makes me feel mythological or something. But all of that aside, this is really just me using what is there, what I have. Real food & real light. And that’s the point.
Asparagus Benedict on Quinoa Nettle Cakes with Country Ham, Lovage Mint Aioli, and a Poached Egg
makes 4 servings
A rich yet healthful take on a brunch classic, this meal would make an excellent dish for Mother’s day, and it can easily be made vegetarian by omitting the country ham or gluten free by omitting the bread crumbs.
For Quinoa Nettle Cakes
1 cup quinoa
1 1/2 cups water
1 bunch nettles
1/3 cup green olives, chopped
1/2 medium shallot, minced
1/2 cup bread crumbs
juice of 1 lemon + zest
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or more like 1 tsp if you’re me)
1 Tbsp honey
For Lovage Mint Aioli
2 Tbsp finely minced lovage (can substitute fennel fronds)
1-2 Tbsp finely minced mint (less if you prefer a less strong flavor)
1 egg yolk
1 large clove garlic minced into a paste with a 3 finger pinch of kosher salt
juice of half a lemon (or more to taste)
a little room temperature water for adjusting consistency as needed
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup good olive oil
*you can invert the oil amounts if you prefer a stronger olive oil flavor, which I sometimes do
1 bunch thick asparagus
4 slices country ham, fried crispy (proscuitto, serrano ham, or pancetta can be substituted)
a mix of spicy baby greens
4 eggs, poached
1-2 Tbsp distilled white vinegar for poaching
1) Make quinoa cakes:
Rinse the quinoa.
Bring the quinoa and water to a boil with a tsp of salt, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for about 20-25 minutes until soft and fluffy. Cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile steam the nettles until thoroughly wilted. Chop fine & squeeze dry with paper towels.
In a medium bowl mix the nettles and quinoa thoroughly. Add the olives, shallot, bread crumbs, lemon juice & zest, salt, pepper, and honey. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. When it tastes to your liking add the two eggs. Mixture should hold together in patties. I usually have about two extra patties, which I like for breakfast the next day! If it doesn’t hold together, you can add an extra egg.
Form about 1/3 cup into patties about 1″ thick and place on a wax paper lined baking tray. Refrigerate covered for about 30 minutes to allow them to firm up. While they’re firming prepare the asparagus, ham, and aioli. *These would also make excellent vegetarian burgers.
2) Make lovage mint aioli:
Place a medium bowl on a damp towel so it doesn’t move around on you. Whisk yolk with the garlic and salt past until pale. Slowly, drop by drop begin to whisk in the oil. When a stable emulsion forms, you can add the oil in a thin stream while whisking constantly. About halfway through adding the oil or if it gets too thick add the lemon juice. Continue adding oil, adjusting the consistency as you go with a little bit of water to prevent it from getting too thick. When done, stir in the herbs and adjust the seasoning with salt and lemon juice. I sometimes add a tiny pinch of sugar to round out the flavor, though not always, and I in no way make it sweet. Just the smallest bit.
3) Steam asparagus:
Steam until just tender. I like mine a little al dente. I do nothing but sprinkle with a little bit of salt. If your asparagus is fresh & in season it will need nothing more.
4) Cook quinoa cakes:
Heat canola oil of medium high heat in a large frying pan. When hot add the cakes without crowding. Fry in batches if needed. Cook about 5-6 minutes per side on medium to medium low depending on your stove until they are cooked through and crispy brown on the outside. While they’re frying, poach your eggs.
5) Poach eggs & fry ham:
Bring a medium pot of water to a simmer. Add 1 tsp of vinegar if your eggs aren’t insanely fresh. Break your eggs into individual small dishes. I use a tea cup. Create a whirl pool in the center of the simmering pot of water by stirring and tip an egg into it. Poach for 3 minutes, until white is set but yolk is still runny. Repeat with remaining eggs.
Meanwhile fry ham crispy.
Place warm quinoa cake on a bed of greens, top with ham, asparagus, egg, and a generous dollop of aioli. Serve warm.