Tag: Tuscany

The Best Italian Herb You Never Heard Of

The Best Italian Herb You Never Heard Of

Nepitella completes the trifecta of Italian herbs that are a must-have in any Tuscan kitchen. Some describe it as a cross between oregano and mint, but I believe it’s more like a cross between basil and mint. And here’s why:

A bunch of nepitella hanging to dry.
(Nepitella, drying out after being harvested.)

When I cook, I like to think about music. I often have music playing (and a glass of wine poured) but I’m not talking now about the music I’m listening to. Instead I like to think about bass notes and treble notes or low notes and high notes.

Different flavors elicit different types of notes. Example: salt would be a high note and black pepper would be a low note or bass note. When cooking a red sauce, I often strive to have the flavors balanced between high and low. And adding dried oregano pushes the sauce into the high-note territory and adding dried basil takes it down into the bass category.

Mookie the cat sniffs some nepitella
(Cats like the smell of nepitella. Maybe they think it’s catnip?)

Nepitella is definitely in the mint family. It has that high note of mint flavor but with a bass note added; not another high note. Therefore I believe nepitella is more like a combination of both basil and mint. But really, it’s in a class all its own.

When Should You Use Nepitella?

So what do I use it for? There are really only two things I use this herb for: mushrooms and artichokes. Whenever I use mushrooms or artichokes in a recipe, I sprinkle fresh (or in the winter, dried) nepitella on them. It is a perfect compliment.

(You can use fresh or dried nepitella but just like other herbs the dried is stronger because the flavors are more concentrated.)

Where Can You Get Nepitella?

My grandmother brought nepitella seeds back with her from Italy many years ago. She planted them in her garden in Boston and a few years later, nepitella was growing everywhere: in the cracks in the asphalt in her driveway and up against her house as well as in the cracks in the sidewalk around her house.

It is a hearty herb and a pleasant one. What it does is re-seed itself. The green leaves sprout light purple flowers that turn to seed and drop in the ground nearby. And in that way, it spreads itself.

Nepitella growing wild along a fence
(Nepitella spreads quickly and will grow just about anywhere including along this fence.)

I took a few plants from the cracks in her driveway and planted them in my backyard. And now this delightful herb grows wild around my home: just waiting for me to come pluck a handful whenever I’m cooking fried mushrooms or stuffed artichokes.

Surprisingly, nepitella is getting more popular in the States. A search on Google turned up a few articles and places on where you can order it online. Gourmet Magazine once featured a video on its site with an Italian chef explaining “why you’ve got to get this wild Italian herb into your kitchen.”  But then he went and added it to fried crabmeat. That’s a new one on me.

Try These Dishes Using Nepitella

Nepitella and Mushroom Spaghetti: This is a quick and easy meal you can make on a weeknight.

Closeup of spaghetti and mushrooms

 

Stuffed Artichokes: A classic Italian side dish that even the Three Stooges can make and eat.

(Photo courtesy of “Insomnia Cured Here” on Flickr)

 

Mushrooms Stuffed with Nepitella Pesto: A buttery and earthy flavor combination.

Green pesto in ramekin with stuffed mushrooms

Mushrooms Stuffed With Nepitella Pesto

Mushrooms Stuffed With Nepitella Pesto

It came to me in a dream: nepitella pesto. I thought that maybe I had invented the idea but a quick search online turned up one reference to it at a restaurant in New York called Osteria Morini.

There they team nepitella pesto with buffalo mozzarella on crostini or with fresh whipped ricotta topped with peas and asparagus. I’m sure that doesn’t taste bad, but what were they thinking? Everyone knows nepitella pairs perfectly with mushrooms and artichokes: everyone, in the small minority of people in this country who have heard of nepitella.

Nepitella plant

So let me let you in on the secret. Nepitella is an herb that grows wild in Tuscany (and in my driveway after I transplanted a small plant from my grandmother’s garden about 15 years ago). Some describe it as a cross between oregano and mint, but I believe it’s more like a cross between basil and mint. And I wouldn’t think of cooking mushrooms or artichokes without it.

So when I was inspired to try to make nepitella pesto the logical use for it was to stuff mushrooms with it. And the result was perfect.

Stuffed mushrooms

The pesto by itself, without any cooking, was much stronger than a basil pesto: more earthy and with a sharp bite, almost spicy flavor. But when it cooked inside the mushrooms, the taste mellowed into a more mild buttery flavor: still very earthy but without the sharpness of the raw nepitella pesto.

If you’d like to try this, finding nepitella will be a challenge, but a search online revealed a few places that sell the plant. Or just stop by my driveway: there this evasive plant grows wild in cracks and along narrow dirt patches along the fence.

Nepitella Pesto (And Stuffed Mushrooms)

September 4, 2013
: 45 min

Making the pesto probably takes about 15-20 minutes; add another 20-25 minutes to make the stuffed mushrooms.

By:

Ingredients
  • Nepitella leaves (washed, about a half a cup)
  • Pignoli nuts (about 1/4 cup)
  • Garlic (4-6 cloves)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (about 1/2 cup)
  • Parmesan cheese (About 1/4- 1/2 cup
  • Imported, freshly grated. Don’t use the stuff they sell in a jar
  • Or use freshly grated Romano and/or Pecorino if you’d like to save some money.)
  • Kosher salt and pepper.
  • Mushrooms
Directions
  • Step 1 Put nuts and garlic in food processor with a steel blade and process for about 15 seconds.
  • Step 2 Add nepitella leaves, salt and pepper.
  • Step 3 With processor running slowly add the olive oil until it’s completely pureed.
  • Step 4 Add cheese and process for another minute.
  • Step 5 If you don’t use it right away, put in refrigerator with plastic wrap touching the top or with a film of olive oil on top. This will prevent discoloring.
  • Step 6 To stuff mushrooms:
  • Step 7 Pull off stems, clean caps with paper towel.
  • Step 8 Put clean caps in a baking dish that has been greased with a small amount of olive oil.
  • Step 9 Spoon in nepitella pesto and bake at 350 for about 15 minutes. You can serve it as is or with a shaved piece of parmesan cheese on top and/or a pignoli nut.
Christmas Befana Cookies

Christmas Befana Cookies

(Above: My grandmother’s recipe makes about 200 cookies. Here, I cut the recipe in half.)

La Befana is an old woman who visits children in Italy on Jan. 6 in celebration of the Epiphany. Similar to Santa Claus, she enters their homes through the chimney in order to deliver gifts.

 

A bowl filled with wet and dry cookie ingredients
This recipe is pretty easy as you just dump all of the cookie dough ingredients in a bowl and stir.

 

Small towns throughout Italy celebrate her arrival each year, including Barga, in northern Italy, near where my family is from. Many people from Scotland have settled in this area and this year the local school put on an outdoor show, featuring Father Christmas and La Befana.

 

Cookies on a sheet before they're baked
The egg white in the red mixture makes the filling expand in the oven.

 

My grandmother used cookie cutters shaped like the four suits on playing cards. When I made these all I had was the spade cutter, which I used along with a star-shaped cookie cutter. Since then, I was able to purchase on the secondary market the other suit-shaped cookie cutters.)

 

Cookies on a sheet right out of the oven
Fresh out of the oven. You have to watch these so they don’t burn.

 

My grandmother, Bruna, made these Befana cookies every Christmas. Requiring 8 cups of flour, her recipe made enough of these biscuit-like treats to last well past Valentine’s Day. Here, I’ve cut her recipe in half, which still makes about 100 cookies.

 

Santa Claus with Befana cookies and milk
Ha! Even Santa celebrates La Befana.

 

Christmas Befana Cookies

December 16, 2009
: Medium

By:

Ingredients
  • For the cookie:
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 sticks of butter
  • Skin of 1/2 orange, grated
  • Skin of 1/2 lemon, grated
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Milk, just enough to work with (about 1/4 – 1/2 cup)
  • Crisco shortening (enough to grease a few cookie sheets)
  • For the filling:
  • 1/2 cup of almonds
  • Sugar (1/4 cup plus 1/8 cup)
  • Skin of 1/2 orange, grated
  • Skin of 1/2 lemon, grated
  • Vanilla (1/2 tsp.)
  • 1/2 ounce of Anisette or Whiskey
  • 1 drop of red food coloring
  • 1/16 tsp. of cinnamon
  • 1 egg white (beaten until foamy)
Directions
  • Step 1 To make the cookie dough: Put all cookie ingredients in a bowl and stir well to blend ingredients.
  • Step 2 Put flour over your hands and over a flat surface. Take dough from bowl and knead a few times until all ingredients are blended well.
  • Step 3 Take large chunks of the dough and roll it out on a floured surface with a rolling pin covered with flour. Roll it out to about 1/4-inch thickness.
  • Step 4 Grease a couple of cookie sheets by spreading Crisco shortening over them and then flouring them.
  • Step 5 Take your cookie cutters and cut out cookies. Put on a greased baking sheet and with your index finger, make a small indentation in each one (This is where the filling will go.)
  • Step 6 To make the filling: Put almonds and sugar in a food processor and mix until very fine. Empty into a small bowl.
  • Step 7 Add the rest of the filling ingredients, except for the egg white, and mix well. Then fold in the egg white.
  • Step 8 Put a small drop of the filling on each cookie and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, until the cookies turn a dark golden brown on the bottom. (Note: You only need about a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of filling for each cookie as the egg white makes the mixture expand during cooking.) (Warning: If the cookies are too thin, they will cook quickly and could burn if you don’t watch them.)
  • Step 9 Let them cool on a rack and bake the rest in batches.