Pasta with Tetragon (New Zealand Spinach) Recipe

Pasta with Tetragon

My first brush with tetragon — a.k.a. New Zealand spinach, warrigal greens, sea spinach, and a few assorted nicknames — took place six years ago: Nicolas Vagnon, the chef of the now long defunct La Table de Lucullus, had invited me to join him on his Saturday morning market run at the marché des Batignolles and hang out in his teeny kitchen afterward, watching him cook for the handful of customers who had come to lunch that day.

Among the things he bought and prepared was an alien-looking plant with diamond-shaped leaves attached to thick stalks. It and I were properly introduced: “Tétragone, meet Clotilde. Clotilde, meet Tétragone — it’s a little bit like spinach.”

Tetragon leaves are in fact more succulent — thicker, juicier — than spinach, and for someone like me who still hasn’t managed to get over a fierce childhood dislike for spinach, it is superior: it tastes green and marine (iodé, as we say in French, like the seaside air, or oysters) but without the bitter metallic aftertaste that bothers me so much in spinach.

Nicolas served it raw that day, drizzled with an olive oil dressing and paired with thinly fileted marinated sardines (see picture below, circa July 2004). And raw is definitely the way to go if the tetragon is young and its leaves spry; it pairs well with fish or shellfish then, but also with cured ham or burrata, and fresh almonds.

Tetragon with sardines

What I do is pluck the leaves off the stalk before I discard it, only retaining the upper part, where it becomes tender. Small sprouting clusters of what would have been more leaves are tipped into the salad bowl as well.

But sometimes you get a bouquet of slightly older tetragon (old tetragon should be avoided altogether) and find that, while the top leaves are delicate enough to be eaten raw, the ones on lower floors have toughened and feel scratchy in the back of your throat. It is preferable to cook those.

You can handle tetragon in much the same way you would spinach, keeping in mind that it is a pity to overcook it, even more so than other greens, because you want to retain a slight crispness in the leaves.

Among the things I’ve tried and loved, I’ll mention adding tetragon leaves on top of a pizza just out of the oven so it will cook in the steam, and this pasta recipe.

It is a sort of variation on the orecchiette alla barese (orecchiette in the style of Bari) that Guillaume Long got from Laura Zavan‘s book Ma Little Italie and illustrated on his brilliant blog, and which I learned about by way of Patoumi‘s enthusiastic report.

I was once (just once) able to score the elusive cime di rapa that this recipe calls for (broccoli can be substituted) and I loved the result. The technique stuck with me, and I have since applied the same succession of steps to a variety of short pasta shapes and green vegetables.

It’s simple, really, and as quick as pasta gets: while the pasta boils, you cook some garlic, chili pepper and anchovies with olive oil in a skillet. Depending on the vegetable you’re using and how much cooking it requires, you either add it to the pasta water or to the skillet. When the pasta is cooked, you add it to the skillet, stir gently over low heat to combine, and serve with a good grating of cheese.

You may have noticed in the top photo that the strands of parmesan are fairly thick: I like to use the large holes in the box grater, because the cheese melts more slowly then and contributes its own texture.

Finally, I’d like to stress the importance of serving pasta in warmed pasta bowls. Eating lukewarm pasta ruins the experience for me, so I boil a little more water in the kettle than I’ll need for the pasta, pour a shallow layer of that remaining hot water in each bowl when the pasta’s almost done, and (important not to forget) pour out the water just before serving.

Note: I never knew this, but tetragon contains oxalic acid, which some sources say should be removed by blanching the leaves before using (the excess oxalic acid will transfer to the water that you’ll discard). Other sources suggest this is only necessary if you are sensitive to oxalic acid, if you’re dealing with wild plants or old leaves, or if you’re eating tetragon on a frequent basis. If you’re worried about it, discuss it with your doctor, and possibly with the vendor who sells you the tetragon.

Tetragon Pasta

– 200 grams (7 ounces) short pasta (I use fusilli or buccoli, but orecchiette would also be nice)
– 4 generous handfuls tetragon leaves (a.k.a. New Zealand spinach)
– a pinch chili pepper flakes
– 1 clove garlic, finely minced
– 4 filets salted anchovies packed in oil, drained and quickly rinsed to remove excess salt
olive oil
– freshly grated nutmeg
– salt, pepper
parmesan or pecorino, freshly grated, for serving

Serves 2.

Bring salted water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a medium skillet over medium heat. Add a good swirl of olive oil, and when hot, add the chili pepper and garlic, and cook for a minute or two without coloring. Add the anchovies and crush them with a wooden spoon so they’ll dissolve in the olive oil.

Add the tetragon to the skillet, sprinkle it with a touch of nutmeg, stir, and let it soften just a little (not too much!) in the heat. Remove from the heat. (Alternatively, if you wish to blanch the tetragon because you’re concerned about the oxalic acid — see note above –, add it to the pot of pasta during the last 30 seconds of cooking to blanch it instead of sautéing it.)

When the pasta is al dente, drain (not too thoroughly; keeping a little of the starchy cooking water makes it silkier) and pour into the skillet. Toss to combine over low heat, sprinkle with pepper and divide between two warmed pasta bowls. Top with grated cheese and serve immediately.

Cooking/baking time: 7 min

  • http://operagirlcooks.com Coco @ Opera Girl Cooks

    Wow, I have never in my life seen this particular green! Thanks for introducing me to yet another new food on your amazing blog!

  • http://www.zomppa.com Belinda @zomppa

    Never had this before! What great ideas to maximize its flavor.

  • http://bilingualbutter.blogspot.com Lucie from Bilingual Butter

    Oh this looks delicious! Would I be able to find this at any market in Paris or is there one primeur in particular who has it?

  • cornflower

    This is widely available in California when spinach is out of season, though it’s not quite as easy to find as “Malabar spinach.” About 25 years ago, before people were as aware of subtle differences in food, both were sold under a sign saying merely “Spinach” and we all thought they were just different varieties of true spinach that were grown in the southern hemisphere. The recipe looks yummy. Thanks!

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Lucie – I’m not 100% positive, but I think it’s still a fairly select/rare green. I buy mine at the marché des Batignolles — furthest stall from the Rome metro station and on your right-hand side.

    Cornflower – I’ve never seen malabar spinach here. If it was available, I suspect it would be called something else, because the word “malabar” is best known as the brand name of a big pink bubble gum here. :)

  • http://www.divaindemand.com Diva (in Demand)

    I’m glad you addressed the bitter taste of spinach because I was wondering about that. It sounds like something I’d try.

  • http://serendipitoustransformation.wordpress.com/ Maureen

    Fantastic! Tetragon is growing on my balcony for the second year in a row. It’s nice to have a specific recipe for this special veggie. When the leaves are big enough to harvest, I’ll try it out. If you are interested in growing it, there are 4 varieties available from Arche Noah (www.arche-noah.at) in Austria including one with red stems.

  • http://barbraaustin.com Barbra

    So funny – I came across this for the first time on Sunday at the Raspail market and had no idea what it was. And I almost bought some but I had literally just spent my last centime (not surprising at this market). Next time.

  • http://www.foodexpressed.com Val

    Wow. Scary name but it does look very appealing. I’m going to check out if it’s something I can get my hands on. Either way I love the simplicity of your pasta dish. Perfect for this time of year.

  • http://www.georgiapellegrini.com Georgia Pellegrini

    A new green for me to try! I’m looking for this next time I’m at the market.

  • http://kidscooking.about.com Stephanie

    I bet I can find it at the farmer’s market. Thanks for the tip about warming the bowls.

  • http://www.seniorportraitsct.com Cindy

    I have never heard of this vegetable. Thanks for the well researched, well written blog and recipe. I will watch for it in my local stores.

  • Debbie

    Warrigal greens are fabulous! I ate a lot of them in Australia as I found them growing wild were I lived. An Aboriginal friend of mine introduced me to them and showed me his repetoire of recipes. The one I loved most was pesto made with the leaves and stems. Just swap the basil in a normal pesto with the greens. Serve on wattleseed bread (or any other multi seeded bread).

  • Ana

    I’m a New Zealander and I’ve never heard of this plant.. intriguing! I’ve never seen it for sale anywhere so it must not be cultivated here much.

  • http://www.phillygirlabouttown.com Carly

    It’s funny how information travels. Your tetragon article/recipe led me to reading about oxalic acid and then to bee mites–a person I work with is a beekeeper, and I had to wonder if you can use tetragon soaked water to help rid bees of mites (without harming the bees or honey of course!).

  • http://www.kiwizine.com/ Barton

    Disappointed I haven’t come across NZ spinach yet? I am a Kiwi. Will try find it in California.
    cheers

  • http://www.littleclove.com/ littleclove

    I have never ever heard of tetragon, but it sounds delicious! I actually thought you were doing a play on words for some extra special terragon. :-)

    If I can find tetragon in Chicago, I’ll give this a try. Do you think spinach would be a close 2nd if not?

    Thanks!

  • http://www.cozydelicious.com Katie @ Cozydelicious

    I have never heard of New Zealand Spinach before. It sounds lovely. I’m going to hav eto go searching for it!

  • http://niallniallorangepeel.blogspot.com/ Niall

    Actually an easier way to warm bowls and dinner plates is with the microwave – just pop them in for about a minute, or maybe two if there are a lot of plates. Some people tell you to dampen the plates beforehand, but there’s actually enough moisture in the air that they warm quite satisfactorily in the microwave on their own.
    Niall

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Funny New Zealanders would not have heard about it but Australians would! I read it was a native plant to New Zealand, but perhaps it fell out of favor a long time ago?

    Maureen – It’s interesting to hear you’re growing it on your balcony. It looks pretty, too, so I guess it would make a nice ornamental plant as it grows.

    Carly – I hope the tetragon trick is helpful to your beekeeper friend!

    Littleclove – Yes, if you like spinach, you could definitely use it in place of the tetragon here.

    Niall – Thanks for the tip! I don’t have a microwave oven, but it’s good to know for those who do.

    • Hilary

      I am from New Zealand and I know it, although I am not sure I have seen it for sale as a vegetable. I have grown it though – gardeners know it as a prolific and hardy grower, so maybe that’s why it isn’t sold commercially?

      • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

        That sounds like a very valid theory!

  • http://www.theteachercooks.com The Teacher Cooks

    This is a lovely pasta dish that I will try with spinach. I have never seen tetragon in Georgia. I too hate lukewarm pasta. Great idea using the boiling water.

  • Richard

    No need for a microwave or boiling a kettle; you’ve got a pot full of boiling water right there! I just pour a bit of the pasta water from the pot into the bowls before draining the pasta in a colander; while the pasta is draining I swirl the hot water around the bowls and throw it out. By the time I have mixed the pasta and sauce, the bowls have mostly dried from the heat, and are warm.

  • Saskia

    Ma mère est alsacienne, et nous a souvent servi de la tétragone; maintenant que tu me le rappelles, je me demande où elle la trouvait ? Le jardin d’une voisine ou d’une collègue ?? En tous cas, c’est un régal !

    PS : Juste un détail : Guillaume s’appelle “Long”, pas “Lelong” .. ;-)
    Et oui, son blog est génialissime …!

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      Merci de m’avoir fait remarquer cette erreur, Saskia, c’est corrigé !

  • http://www.simplylifeblog.com/ Simply Life

    OH yum, that looks delicious!

  • Joslyn

    Clotilde,
    In Mauritius this green is referred to as “bred epinard.” I live in Caifornia and have never seen it there.

    Joslyn

  • Melissa in Austin

    Hmmmm…. I grew this in my garden here last year (you see lots of it in the nurseries in Austin b/c it can take the hot weather longer than regular spinach) and it does grow nice and tall, but…….. I wasn’t too fond of the way it tasted and gave up on it. Maybe I didn’t pick the leaves young enough. Maybe I’ll give it a second chance next spring – but we are in the brutal part of the summer now and it will have to wait.

  • Lisa

    I grew up in NZ but I’ve never heard of this type of spinach. I wish I had before I left! It sounds intriguing!

  • Loral

    Ha! yes, I’m also a kiwi and I’ve never heard of it!

  • eleanor

    just a note (i know this post is old, but still…) about your note; spinach also contains oxalic acid, that’s why it sometimes makes your teeth feel gritty. hate for anyone to avoid malabar spinach, which is a much better choice in warm climates, and continue eating the regular stuff based on fear
    -e

  • Sandy Harvey

    Hi, I am from NZ, and this spinach grows literally like a weed, and will pop up in the garden the following year, and I always seem to have a supply on hand, and the smaller leaves are great in a salad, but the larger ones certainly need to be cooked, steamed is best. With a bit of garlic and olive oil and ground salt and ground black pepper over the top prior to serving. Also with grated tasty cheese on top, or parmesan. It is so easy to grow, prepare and eat.
    We love it.

  • HELEN

    I have a large patch here in las vegas, which only grows in the winter here. But I must make gallons of spinach soup.
    I also try and push people to grow it when I teach all my gardening classes.

    • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

      That’s great, thanks for spreading the tetragon love!

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