You’ll hear, certainly from more dramatic writers, that working on a memoir is like childbirth: It’s painful. It takes too long. It shows you the part of yourself you never wanted to see. Technically, A Year Right Here—the series of essays flowering into form on my computer these days, in fits and starts—is not a memoir. But it is, in general, about me. And I find it is, in general, a more difficult process than writing cookbooks has been.
But for me, the process of writing a single essay is more akin to laying an egg. I can’t say why or when or how, but at certain times, my mind is capable of producing writing. When I feel the egg coming on, I find a nest—often Vif, the coffee shop in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood whose breakfast menu typically refuels me late morning if I’m really on a roll—and I write. When the essay comes out, it’s almost fully formed, save some tinkering. It’s a matter of washing and perhaps scrubbing, but usually not one of constructing. But if there’s no egg, there’s no writing. If there’s no egg, I answer email or plan or pitch or simply walk away.
And so it happened that the other day, when I realized my cozy spot in the sun at Vif wasn’t going to be productive in any way, I gathered my dog and my mittens and my favorite orange bag and went for a walk in Discovery Park.
If you ask a park ranger, I’m sure she would tell you that picking foods out of Disco Park, as we call it, is strictly illegal. But as spring unfolds into summer and summer unfolds into fall, it’s not unusual to see folks picking things out of the undergrowth or off spiky blackberry bushes. And this year, the nettles are early. And on the whole, I do very few things that could land me in jail, so I figured picking was worth the risk.
Stinging nettles, as they’re so accurately named, are what I once called mint’s mafia cousin; they have spade-shaped leaves with toothy edges, but they’re corrupted by a taste for causing pain. Cooked and whirled up into, say, a pesto, the fine stinging hairs on the sunny side of each leaf learn to play nice, but if you touch them when the leaves are raw—i.e., when they’re still in the ground at Disco Park, or fresh out of the bag from the farmers’ market—they will cause paresthesia, which is a (temporary) numbing or stinging wherever the hairs contact your skin. I’ve learned, over the years, that it’s best to dump fresh nettles into a pot of boiling water, dirt and sticks and bugs and all. The less desirable stuff tends to float up to the surface, where it can be fished out with a slotted spoon, and I don’t get stung. But before this week, I’d never picked nettles myself.
It’s not hard. It took almost as much time to put on my mittens as it did to pluck a bag’s worth of nettles in a spot just out of view of the park’s walking trails—maybe five minutes, at the most. I simmered them until they were limp but still bright green, then buzzed them into a thick paste, along with strips of lemon zest, toasted walnuts, and olive oil. Yesterday, I smeared the nettle-walnut butter onto crackers and topped it with tinned sardines for lunch, and for dinner, I mixed it with olive oil and tossed it with pasta. Today, I’ll bring half of it in a small jar to the ladies at Tieton Farm and Creamery, who I’m visiting for the book. Maybe we’ll have it for breakfast, over eggs, with a smattering of fresh cheese.
First, though, I’m going back to the park, because it’s sunny and because there are nettles and because some days, there is just no egg.
Nettle-Walnut Spread (PDF)
This recipe calls for six ounces of fresh stinging nettles, but if you’ve dealt with nettles before, you know that measuring them—well, touching them in any way, really—is inconvenient, because the fine hairs on the sunny side of each leaf really do sting. Six ounces is about half a paper bag’s worth of unpacked nettles, if you’re picking them yourself.
Use the spread on sandwiches, smear it on a plate and top it with cooked eggs and crunchy sea salt, or dilute it a bit with water and dress a bowl of spaghetti (with additional chopped walnuts, toasted breadcrumbs, and freshly grated Parmesan, if you’re willing).
Makes about 2 cups
6 ounces fresh stinging nettles, stems and all
1 cup toasted walnuts
Stripped zest and juice of 1 medium lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Heat a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the nettles without touching them, using tongs if necessary, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the nettles are all completely limp. Drain the nettles, spread on a baking sheet, and set aside until cool enough to touch.
Meanwhile add the walnuts, lemon zest and juice, and salt to the work bowl of a food processor. Using two hands, squeeze the nettles dry of any excess liquid a clump at a time, then loosen each clump before adding it to the food processor with the other ingredients. Pulse the nettle mixture until finely chopped, stopping to scrape down the sides of the work bowl every now and then. Add the olive oil, then whirl the mixture until smooth and thick. (It should looks like green hummus.) Season to taste with additional salt, if necessary.
Transfer the spread to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 2 weeks.