Spring sourdough spaetzle with peas and things
Apologies, but this recipe does come conditionally: you will need a spaetzle maker; a little obscure, I know, but relatively easy to find and inexpensive. I bought mine on a trip to Italy prior to ever actually having made them. It was autumn, up near the Austrian border. We were there on a restaurant excursion, travelling, eating and going to wine festivals. It was magical – all misty mountains, falling leaves, sausages, hearty meats and beer. And it was here I discovered spaetzle, a pasta dumpling hybrid. Squiggly and stumpy with a German name, these little beauties are found regionally all through the central part of Europe.
The ingredients are as simple as pasta, but mixed together they form a very wet dough, more like a thick batter. This is then pushed through the holes of a spaetzle maker straight into boiling water to simmer for a moment before being strained and cooled. From there they are cooked off in a pan, usually with butter. As they hit the heat for the second time, they puff a little and the flavour is surprisingly delicate. Using some sourdough starter as I have done here gives them an extra lightness and also adds a lovely tang.
Many of the recipes I have seen for spaetzle imply that you can use a colander, steamer, mouli or ricer as a substitute to make them, although traditionally they were hand-formed, their shape raggedy and uneven. I have attempted making spaetzle with these substitutes and had very little success. The holes in a proper maker are bigger, as you can see. (This is the time for you to pause and search the internet for where to buy one. You can order online or get them at kitchen supply stores.)
Spaetzle are used as you would any other pasta or noodle, as a base to highlight the sauce or accompaniments. They’re sometimes served as a side and are often paired with heavier creamy or meaty sauces, goulashes or are laden with cheese – a heavy comfort food well suited to cold European regions. Here I have a lighter version with peas and broad beans, the caper, sage and pecorino combination a nod to my Italian memories of this dish.
In this recipe I have advised doing the double pod of the broad beans even though I know some find this a time-consuming and unnecessary task. I do think it’s for the best, although I have a rule that the smaller more tender beans can slip through with their skin intact. About this time of year peas and broad beans have a glorious sweetness to them and eating big spoons of them is a decadence.
Here the spaetzle provide a grounding balance: little delicate dough pillows with an occasionally crisp exterior mingling with the gentle green notes of the legumes and the salty tang of the capers. It is a true spring delight.
Time: 30 minutes + 2½ hours resting
125g plain flour
½ tsp cooking salt
100g sourdough starter
½ generous cup sage leaves
130g podded peas, blanched and strained
240g podded broad beans, blanched, strained and skinned
salt flakes and black pepper
50g shaved pecorino to garnish
1. Place the flour and salt into a mixing bowl and spoon in the sourdough starter so it nestles in the middle. Use a fork to whisk together the milk and egg and then pour about half of that into the bowl, again into the middle. Use a mixing spoon to combine the ingredients, bringing the dry into the wet. Add the remaining milk mix and keep going until everything comes together. It will look like a slightly uneven thick batter. Cover with a tea towel and set aside for two hours.
2. Have a wide-based saucepan generously full of boiling salted water on the go as well as a bowl of iced water on the side. Use a spaetzle maker to push the dough directly into the salted water. The spaetzle will puff a little as they hit the water. Once all the dough has been pushed through, the water will soon come back to the boil. Once it does, let it simmer for one minute to firm up before scooping the spaetzle out of the saucepan into the bowl of iced water.
3. Once cooled, strain the spaetzle through a colander and give it a good shake to remove excess water. Use a bit of paper towel to press them and dry them a little more. Once they are mostly dry add a little splash of olive oil and mix it through, this will prevent them from clumping. At this stage they can live in the fridge in a colander until you are ready to make your dish. They actually do better if they get at least a half-hour to sit before you go to the next stage.
4. Place your largest shallow pan or frypan over a high heat, let it warm a little and then add in the butter and capers. Mix them around and cook until the butter starts to brown and the capers start to fry (about two minutes). Add the sage leaves and continue stirring until the leaves start to look crisp, another minute or so. At this stage add in your spaetzle, stir well, season generously and then spread them out as much as you can. The idea for this stage is to fry them enough to get some crispy bits. Do this over about five or six minutes, letting them sit to fry before stirring and repeating. The spaetzle are mostly hardy but you don’t want to break them up too much.
5. Once you are happy with your spaetzle, add in the peas and broad beans and continue gently mixing until they are warmed through. Add salt flakes and black pepper and then serve while hot with the shaved pecorino on top.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 6, 2021 as "As the dough fries".
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