Sunday, March 29, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Out of This Nettle, We Grasp This Dinner

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.

(from left) Me, Carolyn and Greta

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:

nässelsoppa (Scandinavian nettle soup) with dill and chive crème fraîche
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.

44 comments:

Maggie said...

Wow! I've always been afraid of cooking nettles...I was really used to recognizing/avoiding them in Oregon woods, among all the plants I knew, and then went camping for the first time on the east coast and was so surrounded with unfamiliar stuff that I immediately got stung. Whoops.

Looks like quite a meal!

kellypea said...

We have them in our mountains, but that's a ninety minute drive. I've heard you can cook with them and you've really gone all out here. Really droolworthy dishes -- all.

Foodycat said...

There is a wild patch at the end of our garden that is usually good for some nettles, but when I wanted them today for a pesto, they weren't to be found. Your meal looks amazing. And Greta's molten chocolate desserts sound lovely!

Stacy said...

Oh! Your girls are my girls too! Hi girls!

Everything looks fantastic, and I can't wait to try the Caddisfly Nymph (I've developed a greater appreciation for the bubbly lately)!

peter said...

Ours are only an inch or two tall, but they'll be ready right when the asparagus starts to go off. And they're both about 20 feet from the front door. Can't wait.

yabbadabbadoo said...

nettles... you are one impressive lady.

Heather said...

wow! i'm impressed by everything you came up with. it all looks so delicious!

Peter G said...

l love how you focused on the one ingredient and you certainly proved how versatile the nettle can be! A great gathering with your girlfriends too-very "Sex and the City"!

anno said...

This is an amazing menu! And until you mentioned wetlands, I had assumed we had plenty of the main ingredient ready at hand, and I was ready to cook. Turns out, though, we've got thistles. Know anything they might be good for? Besides feeding to our neighbor's baby goats?

Michael said...

Who's the one that said, "These hurt like a bitch...hmmm, I'm gonna cook these up!" Aww, who am I kidding that's how most stuff ends up on the table. Nicely done!

we are never full said...

this is why we come back to this blog- cause you're GOOOOD. and your friends sound great - girl power. a nettle based meal... that takes some creativity!

Elra said...

Scandinavian nettle soup sounds really delicious, I am not sure that I've ever tried one.
Cheers,
elra

Rick said...

Heather you are always out in front of me. I have been planning on diving into cooking with nettles this spring once they come up. I have been watching too much River Cottage and have my mind set on a nettle beer.

Núria said...

Congratulations Heather! What an awesome meal!!!!
We get this plant here too, we call it Ortiga and my father has always told me that if you keep your breath, you can take it and it won't hurt...
I never dared to try ;D

Syd said...

I don't think we have them here. Anyway, that's the excuse I'm using for not even knowing that they are edible. Doh!

Bellini Valli said...

What a lucky group of ladies to sample all these incredibl;e dishes forthis innovative feast:D

Peter M said...

Heather, love the subject matter and you would know all there is about plants & other veg. The menu sounds awesome and the table setting, a lady's touch (yeah, you're an f-ing lady).

Nate-n-Annie said...

Hello fellow "24'er"

Congratulations on being chosen to do a 24, 24, 24 event! And a very interesting one at that. Stinging nettles are so under appreciated. (I'm sure the name has something to do with it.)

We made a stinging nettle soup with potatoes and leeks a while back. This post reminds me that I have yet to blog that recipe.

Have you tried stinging nettles on pizza?

The Duo Dishes said...

Such a good idea. This is very creative.

Toni said...

Well, if I could find that much moisture here in southern California, I'd go looking for nettles. But instead, I'll just head up your way and knock on your door for dinner - K? ;-)

Nikki said...

Yay...I have never used nettles in anything and I trust that I can do what you did with yours. You & your friends are so cute, picking botanicals in the forest... :-)

Heather said...

Mags - Ouch! I'm really immune to bee stings and poison oak, but nettles really get to me.

Kelly - Sometime if you're out there, do stop and pick. It's worth it.

Alicia - Ours are barely up. I usually end up going back every month or so until June - even when they get a bit stringy they're good for pesto.

Stacy! - That fourth table setting was for you, honey. Can't wait to see you in a few weeks. :)

Jube - Lucky you don't have to travel for yours, but I bet your summer mosquitos make it something of a trade-off.

Wiiilllllma! - Aw, shucks.

Heather - It was tasty, but I'm glad everything freezes well. Anything gets old when there's too much.

Petah - I still have time to come up with a few more uses.

Anno - I actually have been meaning to harvest some of the large thistle that we get out here (a Carduus species, not the small Cirsium) because they're related to artichokes/cardoons. I bet you can strip off the leaves and peel and steam the stems like a cardoon.

Michael - Some people use them therapeutically for nerve and muscle problems (like paralysis).

Amy - Plenty of people are using nettles these days, but I really wanted to do something pretty and fancy. Still ended up with soup and pesto though! :\

Elra - I think it's traditional to crumble a bit of hardboiled egg on top of the soup, but I didn't really want to.

Rick - A nettle beer sounds fantastic. You should see what Lang at Fat of the Land is doing with nettles.

Núria - I'm pretty sure that doesn't work! I'd stick to gloves, myself. :D

Syd - You got enough low country, I bet you do. I think kudzu is edible too, come to think of it.

Valli - Well they're good for cocktails and chocolate, so we all get a pretty great deal. :)

El Greco - I actually put away the creepy skulls and bones and busted out grandma's rose-patterned china for this one. ;)

Nate & Annie - I haven't tried nettle pizza yet, but I make a similar pesto with arugula that is great on pizza. I'll definitely try that!

Chrystal - It's just a new spin on an old idea. Actually, the spin isn't even that new. :P Thanks!

Toni - Well you've got sunshine in spades and can grow Meyer lemons, so I guess that's your trade-off. :D

Nikki - You totally can! Nettles are so easy to use, once you blanch the sting out of them.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Fascinating. A few years ago someone suggested I try nettle tea for illness. I think that was my last taste of them as a flavoring. Thanks for giving me a second look.

I can remember when I went to Ireland a few years ago on a horseback tour we were given strict instructions on what nettle plants looked like. There were no bathrooms on the trail, so we would often have to go off and make a toilet for ourselves somewhere. You did not want to pick a place infested with nettles to pee!

Sweet Bird said...

I've always wanted to try stinging nettles - I've got several recipes calling for them tucked away - but I've always been intimidated. I love that you really showcased the flavor of the nettle instead of just using it as a token. This is a great combination of dishes.

I'm going to have to find an Ikea to get that elderberry syrup.

cook eat FRET said...

i know nothing of nettles...
and every spring it bothers me
yet somehow i sleep

Chef KPH said...

Looking good. My sister makes tinctures of the nettles she finds in Sonoma Co. I'll send your post her way. And don't think I didn't notice the gratin. Haha.

LC said...

What a wonderful post to return to after spending a week away from the Interwebs! Your nettle mojo is inspired and delicious looking, Heather. Can't wait to try them myself. Very cool that FoodBuzz is on board with our testy spring forage.

Tammy said...

Congrats on your third 24, 24, 24- and happy spring too! It looks great! I think nettles and mushrooms would be great together-

matt wright said...

OMG. You rock. What an awesome menu revolving around a great ingredient.

Not sure if I have said this before, but you seriously need to start a restaurant.

Brooke said...

Oh, you goddamn genius, you. It appears you've been keeping yourself busy in the field, eh? Looks fantastic - especially the gratin. I'm going backpacking this weekend and will fo' sho' pick meself up some bastardly stinging nettles to play with.

J.Danger said...

wow- how awesome are you?!

Brittany said...

As usual. I'm speechless. I love nettles

You need to take me to some Portland bars. I promise to wear hot pink, in some form.

Emily said...

Your 24, 24, 24's are always great. You've done a couple of them now, right?

This post is perfect for spring! Great job. I'm hungry for nettles now.

Darius T. Williams said...

nettle, huh? Never heard of the stuff but now I soooo wanna try it.

Um, great looking spread you've got over there - looks amazin.g

MrOrph said...

Mmmmm...yeah....you go girl.

Only pickin' I'm doing is from my Aero Garden.

You'd have me out there pickin stuff, we'd come home and ham-hock boil some poison sumac!

Nice job,(AS USUAL) Heather.

glamah16 said...

What an elegant dinner . I have never had nettles before so I am curious. Nice to see the girly side of you.This makes 2 months in a row for 24,24,24.Congrats.

eileen said...

wow! what a totally impressive dinner! Nettles are one of the ingredients I've never been able to find, probably because I'm not knowledgeable enough to recognize them when I'm out in the wild. (Blackberries, raspberries, and wintergreen, though--yeah.) Maybe I'll get lucky and find some at the farmer's market!

Leigh said...

That Gratin really looks good, and nice to Lamb - it's totally lamb time and that is a goood thing...

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Nice one! Definitely a well-designed meal. Oddly, for all the foraging I've done over the years, I have never bothered with nettles. Maybe I should...

SOUP OF THE DAY said...

No idea what Nettle is. But the Nasselsoppa (the soup) looks so good!

Jeff said...

Nicely done and am amazing spread. Makes me want to go pounce through the woods looking for dinner now.

Zen Chef said...

Weeeee!!
I'm going nettle picking with Marc (Norecipes) and a bunch of other next week-end. This post will be really helpful. What would be even more helpful is if you could fly to NY and come to help us.

Dia said...

Oh, how delicious this sounds & looks!!

& what a treat to enjoy a virtual trip to Reed! My former hubby was a biologist & a 'Reedie!'
In the late 80s I took an herb class from Glen Nagel (now an ND). We went nettle foraging both on the gorge & on the Reed campus! We made nettle beer (which we got to enjoy during the last class), & took greens home to cook up. It was my mother-in law's BD (mid March) & when I mentioned that I would surprise her with some, there were raised eyebrows till I explained she was also a biologist & LOVED nettles!
A friend brought a nettle soup recipe that she picked up at the market, when visiting relatives in Bulgaria. The soup is 'settled with yoghurt & eggs' She grows nettles in large pots, so her 'yard guys' won't get rid of them!

Marc @ NoRecipes said...

Nicely done! They are a PITA to clean though. I spent about 3 hours yesterday afternoon going through what seemed like an endless bag of the gritty venemous buggers.