Tag Archives: stinging nettles

When there are no eggs

Sardines on crackers with nettle-walnut butter

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.

nettles in the 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.

stripped lemon zest

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.

4 Comments

Filed under appetizers, eggs, foraged foods, Lunch, pesto

Sting

Best Nettle PEsto

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.

Nettle Pesto Close

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
Serves 4

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.

3 Comments

Filed under lupus, Pasta, recipe

When life gives you nettles

Nettle Pesto Pasta

I’d like to file a petition to officially divide the spring season into two sub-seasons: “Spring,” which comes after Mother’s Day and is usually lovely, and “Unsprung,” the obstinate lovechild of January and July. I don’t like Unsprung, that prepubescent stage between March and April. Every year, I’m hoodwinked into believing that the rain will end, the sun will come out, and we’ll finally be able to stop eating root vegetables. Instead, week after week, I find the same pathetic produce in stores and put up with two months of petulant weather.

Last week, for example, it was 80 degrees in Seattle, and I thought the cold weather was gone. I sailed to my farmers’ market on a boat of absurd optimism, thinking that on some sunny slope within driving distance, a well-tended patch of asparagus might have been bribed out of hibernation. I fantasized about tender, bendy rhubarb and early morels, but the market mocked me. I bought obese parsnips. Again. And kale. Again. And onions. Again. And my hope boat sank.

Continue reading “Taking the Sting Out of Nettles” at Leite’s Culinaria. . . or click here for Bucatini with Nettle-Pecan Pesto.

9 Comments

Filed under kitchen adventure, media