Nettle risotto softens mother-in-law’s heart


Nettle risotto softens mother-in-law’s heart

For a former West Coaster, this was the winning recipe that made her (Italian) mother-in-law utter ‘perfecto', writes EMILIA SMUTS.


DELANA can't remember her mother-in-law's name. Forgetting names is a recurring problem: she couldn't remember my name when we were first-year roommates. But that's not where the real story begins. 

Instead it begins one day at dusk on a hill in Malawi, when an Italian diesel engine virtuoso rushed to help a young Afrikaans woman on a bicycle. Later, they went to the Veneto with three dogs. To Rino's half-finished house near Battaglia Terme, near Padua, near Venice.

However, Delana's qualifications were not initially recognised in Italy and she worked for local farmers and helped the region's aunties with the harvest in the August heat.

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The purpose was to earn money, but also to combine the bits of Italian she had picked up in a few years of marriage to Rino into a complete language — and to master the Veneto dialect, because without it one couldn't get by at all, qualifications or not.

The farm work was exhausting, and at first the aunties viewed Delana with suspicion. Later, they taught her the wrong words for things and had a laugh at her expense when she was red-faced about what she had just said. Still later they accepted her reluctantly, especially when they saw she would run rings around them at work if they were not careful. 

Lunchtime was a two-hour affair of eating, watching soap operas and  a nap. However, Delana would go home to clean up the place, take care of the dogs and cook for the evening.

This was no walk in the park. Typically Italian, Rino was a gourmet and an excellent cook. The  Mother-In-Law's cooking was legendary. Delana was … well, from the West Coast, and Wolfgat would happen only decades later. She was NOT a natural in the kitchen.

But she had barely been there for a year when she made it her goal to concoct a risotto for a family gathering. And not any old risotto, but risotto alle ortiche: risotto with nettles, a local speciality and a sparkling diamond in her mother-in-law's food repertoire.

A brave decision. More or less as brave as it would be for a lifelong vegan to announce in Merweville that she intends to braai mutton chops for the town's braai king. Rino rolled his eyes and changed the subject. For a few reasons.

Italians are obsessed with risotto, to put it mildly. It's not a matter of “cook until al dente". Different regions have different styles and there are even local differences within a region. In Venice, for example, you cook your risotto until it “makes waves", but in the Padua part of the Veneto you cook it until it becomes a little more stiff.

And risotto has more variables than our load-shedding schedule: the rice cultivar, the stock ingredients, when you add what, exactly how long you cook it — you name it.

Besides, Italians are born with a licence to speak their minds when it comes to food. They will start criticising your food while they are munching away: it's troppo much of this and troppo little of that, and “not really the way we do it here in the Veneto".

And the highest standard for risotto? Of course “come lo fa mia madre" (like my mother makes it). Well, how do you trump someone else's mother, especially when that mother is The Mother-in-Law?

But Delana is not to be underestimated, with a brain as bright as a Kruger pound, as hardworking as they come and with a will of steel.

She planned and executed her strategy like a true field marshal. She started by buying Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book, because Marcella understood Veneto cooking. Then she started cooking small amounts of risotto at home to master the technique, while the aunties napped. Meanwhile, in her ever-improving Veneto-Italian, she conferred with the aunties about the secrets and wonders of risotto, made as your mother would make it in the Padua region.

The breakthrough in the campaign came unexpectedly when one of the aunties responded to her enthusiasm and invited her home to watch her cook it. This was exceptional, because working-class Italians almost never receive guests at home. But the auntie took Delana under her wing and taught her what to fuss about and what not.

Finally, the day of the family dinner arrived. The relatives took their places at the table. Rino was as quiet as the moment before impact. Delana started dishing up and the group of Italians bent over their plates.

Stinging nettles are weeds that grow all over South Africa, but were strangely rare in the Cape this year. I eventually got some from my aunt Janette on the farm Langverwagt. They have a delicate, almost nutty taste and are a perfect match for the creaminess of the rice. You could also try the recipe with baby spinach or spinach beet.    


Risotto alle ortiche:

This is how you make risotto alle ortiche, for four people:

Vegetable stock:


  • 2 carrots, sliced
  • 2 celery stalks with leaves, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1½ ℓ water
  • salt


Simmer for 15 minutes. Keep the saucepan with the boiling stock close at hand.



  • 250 g young nettle leaves, plucked from the stems (work with thick gloves or you'll regret it!)
  • small lump of butter and olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped very finely
  • 125 ml white wine
  • 200 g risotto rice — I got hold of carnaroli rice, but any risotto rice will work
  • 40 g butter, diced
  • 60 g grated Parmesan cheese


1. Prepare the nettle leaves: wash the plucked leaves, briefly blanch in boiling water and cool in ice water. Drain and chop finely to form a green purée.

2. Melt the lump of butter in a saucepan, add a few dashes of olive oil and fry the onion until soft and shiny.

3. Add the rice and stir-fry for another 4 minutes.  

5. Add the wine and stir until it has evaporated and the rice is almost dry.

6. Now add the stock liquid to the rice, a soup ladle at a time. Let the stock boil away every time while stirring continuously — it's calm, thoughtful kind of work. The rice should not stick to the bottom of the pot and the liquid should not drown the rice. Use medium heat, not too hot, so the rice grains cook nicely and evenly. If you don't use all the stock, use the leftovers in soups.

7. After about 10 minutes, add the nettle purée to the pot and keep adding stock and boiling it away until the rice is soft but firm, and the risotto is not too watery. The whole process takes about 20 minutes.

8. Remove from the heat, let it rest for a few minutes (call the guests to the table in the meantime), stir in the butter and cheese, season with salt and pepper and serve. Risotto shouldn't stand for long. 

The taste of perfection

This is how Delana did it. There was a tense silence as everyone concentrated on their plates and tried not to peek at The Mother-in-Law.

Finally she moved her plate away, sat back and announced: “Today I tasted perfection.”

She added more complimenti, but Delana's Veneto was still insufficient to understand them. Or maybe she just can't remember.

♦ VWB ♦

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