Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Not Nettlesarily

We were lucky and had a warm, sunny day about a week ago, warm enough to grill some meats and eat outside in the Crown Hill garden, a space transformed by the completion of the mother-in-law cottage built during the past year. I was, as always, grateful to the point of giddiness to be fed by my friends. Cooks love to be fed. We passed the potato salad as the sky darkened and dabbled with different blues, the indigos and Prussians and cobalts of the clear Pacific Northwest sky at twilight. There was a brief interruption in our conversation about the New Normal – babies have started arriving in my little circle and our Sunday Suppers now feature much less wine and much more coo – when one of the neighbors strode through the backyard and over to the table and asked whether it would be alright if he harvested some of the greens growing in and around the gravel filled pit that forms one corner of the yard, which is still a bit raw from the construction.

After a friendly chat he shoved his hands into some gloves as he walked to the back of the yard and then yanked out the greens and pushed them into an enormous bag, larger than a California King Pillowcase. I went back to my potato salad and watched one baby discover a dangling thing that bounces and chimes, watched another baby take a spoonful of chicken and rice, and calculated that if he stuffed the bag full he might achieve a cooked yield of about two quarts. Not even. Six cups. But while you need a lot of picked greens to feed a family, anyone who has ever planted kale or chard in a two-person garden knows the plants produce and produce and produce until you can barely imagine ever again eating another slice of chard and ricotta tart with a drizzle of fireweed honey, or having another helping of pancetta flecked kale with garlic and a splash of sharp cider vinegar.

In any case, he had his work cut out for him because the greens he was pulling weren’t the friendly kind. They were nettles.

With the insouciance of the armed and dangerous, Stinging Nettles cover hillsides and thrive along roadsides and near the hidden brooks that spring from the granite Cascades. Some intrepid campers have been known to gather and boil nettles in their chipped blue enamel pot, tucked into the coals of the camp fire, to be served with fresh caught trout fried in drippings left from the morning’s breakfast of Dutch oven biscuits and boarbelly. Or, even better, why not take some of those leftover biscuits and break them up into the belly fat, maybe with a foraged spring onion and half of a windfall wild apple, and stuff the split, cleaned fish. Roast, and finish with a tablespoon-full of nettle pistou. I forgot my gloves so I will watch you cook from over here.

Nettles spill across the pages of books, as well: Rabbits creep through nettles, looking for does in all the worst places; Swedish fiction is practically overgrown with their spiny stems and leaves, and, although it’s been a while, I seem to recall some sort of nettle encounter in a Thomas Hardy novel, maybe Jude falls in a patch on his way home. You wouldn’t name a child Nettles, unless the poor creature was an orphan left on the Fens, raised by foxes and a blind one-legged soldier. And even then you might go with “Heather” instead.

Another book, the peerless On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee, has this to say about nettles:

Nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common Eurasian weed that has now spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They’re notorious for their stinging hairs, which have a brittle silicate tip and a gland that supplies a cocktail of irritant chemicals, including histamine, for injection when skin meets needle. The hairs can be disarmed by a quick blanch in boiling water, which releases and dilutes the chemicals.

Well, that sounds delicious. I read on:

Nettles are made into soup, stewed, and mixed with cheese to stuff pasta.

Sure, and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that nettles are only to be eaten either at or right after the end of the world, a delightful post-Apocalyptic dish of spiny weeds boiled in brackish water with a good amount of gravel and a nice turn of coarse-ground ash.

And then there is this entry in the cheerful Greens Cookbook, by Deborah Madison and Edward Espe Brown:

These prickly greens are usually volunteers in the garden that make themselves known with their sharp, surprising sting when you are trying to weed. They are a wonderfully strong green herb with great nutritional value. Boiled in water, the stinging properties disappear, and the broth is rich, smooth and an astounding shade of green. The taste is hearty and deep and does, in fact, give the impression it could sustain one through an otherwise foodless winter. Use nettles in moderation – 1 or 2 handfuls for 8 cups of water. Nettle broth itself, with the addition of a few potatoes and cream, makes a robust and tasty soup. Soups made from the broth of boiled nettles have been known to support the lives of at least two saints – the Irish saint Columba and the Tibetan, Milarepa.

Those two saints might be surprised to find themselves in the same sentence, brought together by nettles. I imagine they both had some other things in common as well. Sackcloth and soot spring to mind. And of course, nothing says a good time like “an otherwise foodless winter.”

But I am intrigued by that “astounding shade of green.” And I remember the amazing soup I had of nettles and pork at last year’s Cochon 555, and the stewed nettles I’ve enjoyed at the same garden table from where I watched the harvest. And, given how much I’ve enjoyed my own little ravioli on the menu right now – a mix of cheeses and basil with no added histamine, maybe for Friday, I'll put together a neat little pasta packet of goat cheese, currants, roasted garlic and nettles. Seems like a good start for the dioica curious. Nettles are everywhere, all over Seattle, in soups, pestos, and pastas. On roadsides and riverbanks, vacant lots and backyards. I think I’ll give myself a dare and put some nettles on the chalkboard for Friday night. I’ll wear gloves and take notes.