Monday, March 28, 2011

Foods that Fight Back - Foraging for Stinging Nettles

I like to forage for food. Dandelions, berries, mushrooms, you name it, I love to go out and get it. I mean, what's not to love about it? A walk in the woods, accompanied by birdsong, collecting the freshest, most wholesome foods available, all for free. I had been meaning to add stinging nettles to my foraging repertoire for years now, but always managed to somehow miss my opportunity. This year, I finally made it!

This past Sunday I went nettle picking with my beautiful and nature-knowledgeable friend, Kristin, just about a mile from my house. She is a more experienced forager than I, and showed me the ropes of picking stinging nettles. First of all, the window for picking them, like most other wild foods, is fairly small. They are one of the first shoots to pop up in Spring, and transition from tender stalk and leaves to fibrous and inedible giants in the space of a few weeks to a month. Secondly, the nettles, even with their smarting sting, are actually very fragile plants, and need to be harvested with care. The idea that these fierce looking little greens, the sworn enemy of my woodland wandering youth, were in fact delicate and easily killed came as quite the surprise to me. I had not thought of them as anything more than a nuisance, up to now, and as is often the way of nuisances, assumed that they were likely impossible to be rid of. Not so! When harvesting, the general rule of thumb is to pinch or cut just the top few leaves of the plant, taking no more than 4 inches at most (we took about 2 inches), and not pulling on the plants, as they are very shallowly rooted. If you're kind and gentle to the plants, they'll be there for you to harvest your little bit, year after year.

Another obvious fact of stinging nettle collection is that you need to dress appropriately for the occasion. Wear long sleeves, long pants and gloves, and prepare to get stung a time or twelve anyway. The stings aren't really that bad. To me they felt like more of a tingling/foot gone to sleep sort of sensation that lasted for about 24 hours. It's a small price to pay for a heap of free "superfood".

Here in Western Washington, stinging nettles are virtually ubiquitous in our damp and shady woodlands, so it didn't take us long to score enough nettles to fill our bags. In fact, it took less than an hour of wandering through the woods and shooting the breeze with my homegirl for me to gather twelve ounces of nettle tops. Not bad for a morning out in the fresh air!

After bringing my haul of fresh greens home, I set about blanching them. Blanching is one of the two methods used for removing the nettle's sting, the other is drying. I blanched my nettles in boiling, unsalted water for about a minute, then scooped them out and set them to drain thoroughly in a mesh colander set over a bowl. Note that I didn't drain my nettles, and that I went out of my way to save the water that they were blanched in, which was essentially nettle tea. I had every intention of drinking this liquid or saving it as a broth, that is before I found half a dozen poached baby slugs in my pot. They basically shot to the surface within seconds of the greens going in, and were fished out right quick, before the greens had finished blanching, but something about trying to drink tea, laced however lightly with baby slug slime, just wasn't going to work for me. And so, my nettle tea was re-purposed as the liquid in my goats' evening ration of beet pulp. It's supposed to be good for pregnant and nursing mothers, and we have them in spades, so I gave it a go. The goats ate the nettle-y beet pulp as eagerly as ever, and likely scored a few extra vitamins and minerals from it as well. Waste not, want not!

I proceeded to use my freshly blanched, chopped nettles over the next two days in a pesto recipe, as a seasonally fresh alternative to basil, and in some homemade egg noodles, in place of spinach. Both turned out wonderfully and had a fresh, green flavor nearly indistinguishable from fresh-cooked spinach. My twelve ounces of stems and leaves made four dinners worth of pesto, with about 1/4 cup of plain cooked nettles left over to add to my egg noodle dough and eventually, my chicken soup. My noodle and pesto recipes can be found here. For even more nettle recipes, including the one upon which I based my nettle pesto, check out Langdon Cook's Fat of the Land blog. Langdon is a fellow Pacific Northwesterner and a forager extraordinaire. If I can't convince you to get out there and grab your free food, reading his blog is sure to seduce you into trying the food-nerd-meets-nature-nut way of living.

For more info on foraging for stinging nettles and their uses and benefits, check out the following websites:

General Info on Stinging Nettle, Urtica Dioica

More general info on growing, harvesting and using nettles.

The medicinal benefits of Singing Nettles,

Recipes using stinging nettle -

Pasta with Nettles, Sorrel & Lemon

Nettle Gnocchi

Nettle Pesto

Recipe: Stinging Nettle Pesto & Nettle Egg Noodles

I don't tend to post too many recipes on this blog for an assortment of reasons, the main one being that I am a slacker - writing up a recipe is hard for a lazybones like me. It certainly doesn't help that I'm somewhat of a lax cook as well; I almost never measure ingredients, and I add and tweak right up until the food hits the plate. I throw in odd bits of this and that as the spirit moves me, and therefore, A) never make anything exactly the same way twice (which cuts both ways, I assure you) and B) have a hard time putting my ingredients and methods into words that make sense.

But I had to post these recipes because they are not only earth-muffiny as all get out (thumbs up!), but are also great tasting and relatively easy to make. Let's cook with nettles!

My first go with harvesting and cooking nettles had me making a fresh nettle pesto. The recipe that I used was from Fat of the Land. The original recipe can be viewed here. The following recipe is my twist on the FOTL recipe.

Stinging Nettle Pesto

-2 cups (cooked) blanched and drained stinging nettles, squeezed-dry and chopped well (about 6 cups raw)
-1/2 cup +/- of Parmesan cheese
-1/2 cup raw, unsalted walnuts
-5 or 6 large garlic cloves, peeled
-1/2 cup +/- olive oil (I usually go for more. Nothing worse than a pasty dry pesto!)
-Fresh squeezed juice from 1 lemon (2 or 3 tbsps worth, I'd guesstimate)
-Salt & Pepper to taste

Just like any other pesto, you basically just pop everything into the food processor and whiz it up to your preferred consistency, adding additional oil and seasonings as you deem appropriate. (If you didn't take to heart my earlier disclaimer about not being a recipe writer, consider the proceeding recipe "Exhibit A". I hope that you'll try it anyway!)

Our second night of cooking with nettles had them in a less highlighted role, as the "spinach" in my homemade egg noodles. If you have a homemade pasta recipe that you like, simply add about 1/4 cup of blanched, squeezed dry, finely chopped nettles to your dough during the initial kneading and mix through well. Boom. That's it. If you're still game to try one of my recipes, well here you go:

Nettle Egg Noodles

-3 cups flour (plus extra for rolling out)
-2 whole eggs
-4 egg yolks
-2 tsps salt
-2-3 tbsps water
-1/4 cup blanched, well drained, chopped stinging nettles

Start with your flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle for your eggs & yolks. Gentle scramble the eggs with a fork, slowly beginning to incorporate the flour/salt mixture. Once the eggs and dry ingredients are well mixed, begin adding water in small increments, kneading and squeezing the dough together after each addition. Continue adding water as needed to the dough to reach your desired consistency. Now it's time to fold in the nettles. Knead them into the dough well, until the are mixed evenly throughout. Allow the dough to rest for 10 or 15 minutes before rolling out.

If you're lucky, you have an eager helper, just waiting to make a mess of your kitchen for you. Mine's named Scarlet.

This represents about 1/2 of the noodles produced. The rest went into our chicken soup.

Mmm, Mmm, Good!

The girls gobbled this up, not in spite of the nettles, but rather (at least in part) because of the nettles. They thought that it was pretty cool to eat something so "scary". Having them help with the preparation always demystifies new foods a little too. They always have seconds when they're the sous chef. ;)

They weren't the only ones pleased with these recipes. In fact, I want to get back out there and pick some more nettles while the getting is still good. I want to make some nettle tea. Nettles are purported to have numerous health benefits, including anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine properties and are said to also be helpful in the relief of symptoms of osteoarthritis. They also pack a ton of vitamins A & C, and according to various sources, when consumed as a whole (not in tea form), contain anywhere from 10-40% protein, the second highest plant source, next to hemp.

So this is me, encouraging you to expand your food horizons. Give wild food a try! The satisfaction of foraging your own is parallel to that of growing your own, without having to hoe a single row or live in fear of locusts or late blight. Mother Nature sweats the details, all you have to do is get out there and pick. ;)