Spring has officially sprung, and I was so tickled to take my first little stroll down to the forested wetlands at the nearby Reed College campus during an early break in the vernal rains. This time of year is my chance to shake the last of the doldrums of the wan winter pallor, to ditch some of the root vegetable stodge and to taste the first bosky flush of the equinox.
I was delighted, then, that my proposal to prepare a nettle-based dinner was sponsored by Foodbuzz. Having spontaneously submitted my idea as a sudden burst of inspiration, I'm thrilled that our friends at Foodbuzz wanted to help me share it with the food blogging community for the March 24, 24, 24 event.
Although I am a botanist by training (and the trade pays the bills), I take so much pleasure in my city life when I'm off the clock. I love going out to fancy dinners with Scott, going out for a movie or to see a favorite band. But I especially love putting on some hot pink lipstick, a skirt and heels and hitting the bars with my similarly city-loving girlfriends. My girls like good food, but don't necessarily love the idea of grubbing around in the swamp to pick their ingredients.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) grow in swampy places and riparian corridors along streams throughout North America, Europe, Asia and northern Africa. They resemble a mint, though they're in their own botanical family (the Urticaceae). They're easily identified by their pairs of deltoid (slightly triangular), dentate leaves (opposite-decussate in orientation) with fine spines covering the stems and leaves. In the Pacific Northwest, March is when they first poke their little heads out of the alder and cottonwood duff in search of spring's first warming sun. This time of year, too, is when they are at their most tender and nutritious. Nettles are an excellent source of protein, iron and vitamins C and A.
True to their moniker, they do pack a potent sting, delivered mercilessly by the fine, silicate trichomes which act as tiny syringes. The sting comes from the combination of histamine, serotonin and formic acid (similar to the venom injected by stinging and biting formicine ants). The pain is a sharp, tingling sting, and on my skin, leaves small white bumps with reddish swelling. To avoid this, always wear gloves when picking, use a salad spinner and tongs to wash, then blanch the greens in salted water to neutralize the venom before eating.
Rather than haphazardly add nettles to ordinary foods to bolster their nutritional content, I really wanted to showcase the nettles as a primary flavor in a variety of dishes. I put together a menu that would spotlight the stinging nettle in myriad ways:
mixed greens with Granny Smith apples, crumbled smoked fontina and honey-nettle vinaigrette
lamb steak and pan-roasted baby potatoes with nettle pesto
nettle gratin with Pecorino and nutmeg cream
While I prepped dinner, we enjoyed a light cocktail that I created and named the Caddisfly Nymph (after the little water bug upon which salmon and trout feed, and an indicator of healthy streams): 6 oz of Prosecco with a half ounce of elderflower syrup (sold as Flädersaft at Ikea) and a tiny splash of Peychaud bitters (for pinkness and herbal twang). It's flora and girlishness in a glass.
Nässelsoppa is a traditional Scandinavian nettle soup, though I tweaked it slightly by adding cream to the freshly-made chicken stock for richness and body. I sauteed onions and garlic in cultured butter until softened and translucent, added the nettles and chicken stock and simmered until tender (about 15 minutes). I added a glug of heavy cream and some chopped fresh dill, ran the immersion blender through it until smooth, and then returned it to the stove until warmed through. Salt and pepper to taste, then top with crème fraîche mixed with minced chives.
The salad followed the standard formula: mixed greens + fruit+ cheese (tart Granny Smith apples and crumbled smoked fontina from Willamette Valley Cheese Company). The vinaigrette was a loose pistou of nettles, honey, walnut oil, balsamic and sherry vinegars, minced shallot and Dijon mustard. A crunch of salt and pepper finished the salad.
The main was a grilled lamb leg steak (my favorite cut - less commitment than a whole leg and a cinch to cook) and pan-roasted baby Yukon golds smeared liberally with a thick pesto of nettles, garlic, olive oil, pumpkin seeds and the last nub of Manchego (the nuttiness of which nicely complements the smoky earthiness of the nettles).
The gratin was made by layering the blanched nettles into a buttered casserole, then pouring on some hot cream and milk, a generous scratching of fresh nutmeg and then a thick layer of Pecorino Romano. I covered the crock loosely with aluminum foil for the first 45 minutes then browned, uncovered, for the final 20 or so minutes. Rich, creamy, nutty - it was perfect with the meat and potatoes and will be delicious served over pasta as a leftovers lunch.
I was initially going to make a dessert (not using nettles - this isn't Iron Chef for fuck's sake), but Greta had cardamom molten chocolate cakes with ginger-rum ice cream waiting for us at her place, and who can really argue with that? No one, that's who.
I hope you live near some wet woods or a soft streambank. If you don't, then maybe you'll be inspired to take a drive to the country for a free taste of fecundity and nature's produce section. Don't be afraid to get your feet wet, and you might find yourself a tasty dinner.