It stings a little, deep down, when I have to admit that it hurts to dry my hair. It’s not a yelping pain or a whimpering pain, just a constant, low-level annoyance. At first, when I’m giving the ‘do the initial all-over heat blast, there’s just general arm fatigue. Then, when I get down to the nitty gritty, with the brush twirling, my hands start to cramp–first my wrists, then my fingers. Despite all the formal medical indications of lupus, having trouble with the hairdryer is, for me, the single most dependable symptom.
But yes, here it is: March. This is the time of year when lupus gets to me. It’s as predictable as the camellia bush by our front door, only nowhere near as pretty. The days lengthen, and the wind whips, and my body sags. Life starts to sting. When people ask how I’m feeling, like they often do, it feels strange to want to say, “I’m good, except for the hair-drying part.” (Thank goodness I have a good haircut.)
It does make me feel a bit better to hit the farmers’ market around the Ides of March, where you can’t walk two stalls without tripping over some poor sprout of a vegetable who’s clearly had a rough week also. Take stinging nettles, which are sold in half-pound plastic bags all spring at Seattle-area markets. They were just napping on a wet hillside somewhere, so innocently, when someone came and snipped them out of the ground, probably cursing at them. Nettles aren’t like tomatoes or apples; no one ever wants to touch them. People just stare and point, and then, in most cases, walk right by.
I like nettles for three reasons:
1.They’re really easy to cook.
With a lot of other dark leafy greens, there’s washing and chopping and futzing involved. Not nettles. Sure, they sting if you touch them. That always works to my advantage. It gives me an excuse to upend that big bag of greens and dump them directly into boiling water, instead of spending any time worrying about sticks or bugs. (P.S. Boiling water kills things.)
2. They taste great.
I like to think of the taste of nettles as somewhere between mint and spinach. They have a fabulous affinity for pestos, so every year, usually when I start getting cranky about the weather, I make a pesto with whatever nut and herb combination happens to inspire me at the moment. This week, I went for tradition, with a hint of lemon.
3.Nettles don’t last.
They’re weeds. They’re wild. They sting. But like anything worth eating, they have a definite season. And since my complaints generally line up pretty well with their growing season, it’s often quite nice to focus equal attention on their appearance and disappearance.
I have an anti-lupus music compilation on my computer called “A Mix for Sunnier Times.” It’s a cacophonous mismatch of tunes, everything from Scooter Lee to Bill Withers to ZZ Top. Every song has to do with the sun. (This is a little ironic, because lupus is exacerbated by sun exposure.) I forget about it every year, only to rediscover it in March. And every time I sit down, feeling blah, and hear the synthesizer notes alternating between earphones as I Wear My Sunglasses at Night starts blasting, I feel a little brighter.
After all, nothing lasts forever.
Spaghetti with Fresh Peas and Lemony Nettle Pesto (PDF)
Stinging nettles are delicious edible weeds with a layer of prickly hairs on the sunny side of each leaf. They will sting if you touch them raw—but cooking them denatures the sting, rendering them perfect fodder for a springtime pesto. Add chopped grilled chicken, if you’re looking for a bit more heft.
Active time: 20 minutes
1/2 pound fresh nettles
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
1/2 pound spaghetti
1 cup fresh peas
Bring a large pot of water to boil for the nettles. Dump them into the water (don’t touch them!) and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Drain in a colander, then squeeze as dry as possible, using a kitchen towel to wring out extra water, if necessary. (You should have about a cup of nettles.)
Whirl the nettles, garlic, pine nuts, salt, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a food processor until smooth. With the machine on, add the oil in a slow, steady stream, whirling until combined. Pulse in the cheese, then season to taste. Set aside.
Cook the pasta until al dente, according to package directions, adding the peas to the cooking water about 3 minutes before the pasta is done. Reserve a cupful of the cooking water.
Strain the peas and pasta, then return them to the pot, along with 1/2 cup of the pesto and about 1/4 cup of the cooking water (you may need more or less, depending on how loose you like your pasta sauce).
Serve immediately, sprinkled with additional cheese.