I recently spotted a big patch of stinging nettles growing alongside the fence of the Collingwood Children's Farm in Melbourne. This dark green leafy weed has a mild and slightly bitter taste, and I was reminded of a beautiful torte of bitter greens that Stefano di Pieri once made for me. Rustic and unusual, it had a very thin pastry made with lard, and he served it with shavings of prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I returned later, equipped with gloves, scissors and bag, to pick this patch of weeds with the intention of making such a pie.
Italian friends introduced me to wild leafy greens that they would forage in fields and by the roadside. I was immediately hooked on the taste. Some are bitter, some peppery, some mild - but all are more complex in flavour than other greens such as spinach or silverbeet.
Occasionally I see an old Greek woman picking leafy greens on the side of the path along Merri Creek when I'm out on a walk. She showed me once what to look out for: the young, tender part of the plant. I admired her effort in coming all the way out here with a pocket knife and a plastic bag. This is something she would have done back in Greece - it's very common to gather wild greens on the islands, where they are an intrinsic part of the diet. My friend Helen, whose mum originally came from the island of Kos, says her mother always makes her spanakopita and salads with wild greens, which she collects from fields here and also grows from seeds she has saved.
There are many different varieties of wild leafy greens, but they are a little difficult to identify. Greek and Italian home cooks know them - but they all seem to have different names for them. I know them as stinging nettles, cime di rapa or broccoli di rapa (broccoli raab), chard, cavolo nero, mustard greens, dandelion and frisee. One of the best sources of information on the subject is the wonderful chapter 'Edible Weeds' in Patience Gray's Honey from a Weed. Apart from this, there is not very much documented in cookery books.
'Boil until very soft' is the general rule with wild leafy greens - their flavour actually improves the more they are cooked. (This is entirely different from the way many of us have been taught to cook vegetables: until they're only just done and still crisp. We are the generation of squeaky green beans and slightly crunchy carrots.) There is a lot to be said for the way Italians and Greeks cook their vegetables in salted boiling water until they are soft, and then dress them while they're still warm with fruity extra-virgin olive oil and perhaps some fresh herbs or lemon juice.
That, I think, is the most simple and delicious way to cook the vegetable that I know as cime di rapa, or broccoli di rapa. This leafy bitter green looks a little like radish tops or turnip tops when it's young. Use the leaves, the small yellow flowers and most of the stem, but not the thick, tough lower parts.
I also love cime di rapa with pasta. Boil the greens, then press out the excess liquid. Warm a pan, pour in a liberal amount of extra-virgin olive oil, and add thinly sliced garlic, dried chilli and pancetta. When the garlic just starts to colour, add the rapa and fry it for a moment before tossing it through orecchiette pasta with more olive oil and grated fresh pecorino.
Cime di rapa is one of my favourite accompaniments to rich meat dishes such as roast suckling pig or braised veal. Bitter greens make very good sense next to rich and fatty food because they counterbalance it with refreshing bitterness and aid digestion.
Beware of the stinging nettle. It looks harmless enough, but it has thousands of tiny hair-like spikes that become embedded in your hands when touched. They sting and itch and are impossible to remove, hence the importance of the gloves when I was getting ready to make the stinging nettle pie (cooking removes the stinging qualities). Combined with ricotta and parmesan, nettles also make a great filling for homemade pasta, such as ravioli or tortellini; serve them with burnt sage butter.
Stefano de Pieri's brother Sergio once made me a risotto of stinging nettles and Italian pork sausage, quite possibly the best risotto I have ever had. Sergio is from the Veneto and the risotto was wet with fine specks of green stinging nettles, slightly bitter in contrast to the sweetness and richness of the pork sausage.
You may find wild leafy greens in good Italian and Greek greengrocers, or at farmers' markets. And some are now being cultivated, which is very exciting.