Before I am showing you some more pictures from beautiful South Tyrol I decided to complement my photographic impressions of the region by some culinary ones.
Dumplings based on dried old bread are one of THE traditional dishes of this region. In fact bread dumplings – like yeast dough, quark or potato based dumplings – are common all around the former Habsburg monarchy, especially in Austria, Czech republic (‘Bohemia’), Southern Germany and South Tyrol, may they be called “Semmelknödl”, “Brotknödel” or “houskové knedlíky”. Therefore this legacy isn’t unfamiliar to me.
In the alpine cooking tradition of South Tyrol the three most important variations of these simple bread dumplings are “Kasknedl” (addition of cheese), “Speckknedl” (addition of South Tyrolean Speck) and “Spinatknedl” (addition of spinach).
Like other recipes involving old bread, bread dumplings also were a poor people food, a simple, cheap peasant dish were you used what you had in stock. This is in no way meant as devaluation – in contrary: I love those kinds of recipes that make out of the simplest ingredients the most delicious dishes (f.ex. Welsh cakes, Mejadra)!
Having this in mind, it probably isn’t that surprising that there exists a variation on spinach dumplings were spinach is swapped for the omnipresent wild stinging nettles.
In fact, stinging nettles are a much overlooked wild herb, often unfairly categorized as weed. Stinging nettles are used as medicinal herb treating f.ex. arthritis. Dried stinging nettle leaves are often part of herbal tea blends.
The nutritional facts are also not to despise: They are rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. And no fear: The stinging chemicals in the hairs of the plant are removed by soaking the nettles in water or cooking them.
So I went into the woods, put on my gloves and started to gather nettles. About half a bag full – after separating the leaves from the stems I was left with roughly 100 g. I found that this was a good ratio, but add more if you like. Some recipes call for up to 300 g stinging nettles on 200 g old bread.
How do stinging nettles taste? – It’s often described as similar to spinach – no wonder that it is often used as substitute. But that is only half the truth. Yes, it has some similarities, especially in texture, but the taste is much more complex and herby in a way that is difficult to describe. I guess you have to give it a try. Have a look and you will find this herb all around these days – for free.
By the way, if you want to insult an South Tyrolean cook, cut his/her dumpling with a knife! – The texture of a good dumpling should be so soft that you can easily divide it with a fork or spoon!
South Tyrolean bread dumplings with stinging nettles (2-3 p.)
200 g old bread (cubed or thinly sliced), 200 ml milk, 2 eggs, 100 g stinging nettle leaves (or spinach leaves), 1 tablespoon flour, 40 g grated cheese, 20 g butter, 1 small onion, ½ garlic clove, pinch of nutmeg, pinch of lemon zest, salt, pepper (optional: 1 tablespoon chopped parsley)
additional butter, grated parmesan cheese, chives (optional) for serving
Heat milk up until lukewarm. In a big bowl pour milk over old bread, combine and let rest for 30 minutes. Meanwhile chop onions and garlic. Pick stinging nettle leaves, wash thoroughly and roughly chop them. Use cloves during the whole process. Over medium heat sauté onions and garlic in butter until trasparent. Add nettles and sauté for another 3-4 minutes. Combine with bread. Add spices, flour and grated cheese, finally eggs and mix well. I find it works best if your doing this alternating with a fork and with your hands. Let rest for another 30 minutes. You can also make the dumpling dough in advance and store it in the fridge, covered with a lid.
Divide the dough into 6 parts and form – with wet hands – 6 dumplings, about tennis ball shape. Roll them with the palms of your hands until they have a (mostly) even surface and no holes. Set aside for 15 minutes and meanwhile bring water to boil in a big pot. Add about 2 teaspoons of salt, carefully slip dumplings in and – at low heat – let the dumplings simmer for about 15 minutes.
In a pan melt butter at low heat. Remove the dumplings with a skimmer and roll them in the pan until evenly covered. Place on a plate, drop some more butter over them (to your liking), sprinkle with parmesan cheese and chopped chives and serve with some fresh salad.
Left over dumplings are great the next day as well. Cut them into thick slices – optional: dip them into egg wash – and fry in a pan until golden brown.