As sweet as a potato......and nettles bring spring to the kitchen

I tried my hand at baking again this weekend.Disaster about to ensue I hear some of you muttering.For those of you who have read about my previous forays into the realms of breadmaking, you will already know I do not have a proven success rate when it comes to flour and yeast. I was prepared for a Sunday of learning curves and unexpected stress.How wrong could I have been? I chose two very different types of bread.One to enter into blindly and another I had made once before. With ingredients gathered from the monthly farmer´s market for my first recipe and more natural ingredients plucked from the wild for my second, I was all set to bake. First up a sweet potato bread,the orange fleshed variety.The Portuguese sweet potato is purple skinned and white fleshed and carries a flavour I find insipid and more akin to a turnip, without the pepperyness.The recipe said "This couldn´t be simpler: you´ll end up with an irresistible orange coloured bread that is slightly sweet and rich".Tempting? It was for me. The words "simpler" and "irresistible" did it for me.For something that was once an exotic curiosity and a staple crop on the slave plantations of the southern states of America, my bread turned out a treat and my favourite application was having it toasted and buttered for breakfast.
Sweet potato bread
makes 2 x 750g /1lb 11oz loaves
500g/18oz sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm / 1/4in dice
400ml /14fl oz milk
20g /3/4 oz fresh yeast (or 3 teaspoons dried yeast), dissolved in 50ml /13/4 oz warm water
800g /1lb 12oz strong flour
1 teaspoon salt
Put the sweet potato and milk in a pan, put the lid on and bring to the boil.Cook until the potato is done, then remove the lid and boil until the milk has reduced by half. Put the milk and cooked sweet potato into a bowl and allow it to cool until lukewarm.Add the yeast dissolved in the water and mix well, then add all the flour and the salt and knead for five minutes.The dough should be moist but not sticky,so if it needs a bit more flour just add some. Leave it in a warm place to double in size - this should take about an hour. When risen,punch the dough down with your fist and divide into two lumps of equal size.roll each piece into along sausage shape and place on baking parchment on abaking tray.Again, leave it in a warm place to double in size.
Turn the oven to 180C /350F / Gas 4.Brush the dough with warm water and sprinkle with alittle coarse sea salt,then place in the top half of the oven.After 20 minutes test by tapping a loaf on the bottom - it should sound hollow.If it doesn´t cook until it does, this should take no more than 10 minutes.Remove  from the oven and cool on a cake rack. 

........and nettles bring spring to the kitchen.Nettles are nature's well-armoured but plentiful offering at this otherwise rather sparse time of year. Barbed and bristled and undeniably stingy as they are, these plants are nevertheless a gift to anyone like me who favours cooking with local, seasonal, fresh ingredients.The end of February beginning of March is the time to bag nettles. If you're going to eat nettles (and I totally think you should), then the fresh, young growth of February and March is the crop to go for. Pick only the tips – the first four or six leaves on each spear – and you will get the very best of the plant.
The only barrier to enjoyment is the nettle's ferocious stings, but these are easily dealt with. Before gathering your nettles, don some thick washing-up gloves or similarly impermeable handwear, roll your sleeves down and your socks up, then pick away. Keep those gloves on while you wash the nettles thoroughly, discarding bugs, grass and other unwanted organic matter, then drop them into a pan of boiling water or stock. As soon as they hit the hot stuff, the sting is vanquished and you can eat them with impunity and considerable relish.
Nettle bread with feta cheese and green olives
(adapted from a recipe by Maria Manuel Valagao)

250g plain flour
4 eggs
100ml extra virgin olive oil
3 soup spoons white wine  
1 heaped teaspoon dried yeast
 salt and pepper to taste 
1 soup spoon thyme
1 soup spoon mint

250g fresh nettle leaves blanched and roughly chopped
125 g feta cheese
butter for greasing the baking tin
100g pitted green olives
In a bowl mix together the flour salt and the dry yeast that has had water added.Add the eggs one by one lightly beating them in.Crumble in the feta followed by the white wine thyme and mint and stir until you have a uniform thick dough.Toss in the nettles and green olives.Stir to mix.Pour the paste into a loaf pan that has been previously greased and dusted with flour.Put it in a hot oven 210C/410F for 35-40 minutes.Allow to cool in the tin on a baking rack. Serve at room temperature or cold.


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