Friday, March 21, 2008
When we lived on the farm, my own version of sunrise service was to go out Easter morning and collect nettles for omelets. It was our way to mark an annual resurrection that seems miraculous in its own way--every spring the nettles come up and the hens go back to laying full force after their winter slowdown. On days I felt even more metaphorical, I could compare the nettles--prickly, aggressive, and hard to control--with certain people I know who may be hard to get along with but are still worth having around.
Eggs from a home flock, free-ranging on bugs and greens, have brighter yolks, firmer whites, thicker shells, and a rich flavor unknown those from factory chickens. They go well with the intensely "green" taste of cooked nettles. (The sting goes away in the cooking.)
Northwest nettles have been valued as well as cursed for millennia. Local tribes used the strong stringy fibers of mature plants for fish and duck nets and for the warps of Salish rugs. They also had a variety of medicinal uses. According to reports collected by ethnobotanist Erna Gunther in one of my all-time favorite books, The Ethnobotany of Western Washington, the Squaxins and Lummis gave crushed nettle leaves in water to women during childbirth "to scare the baby out." Less fancifully, many tribes considered nettle tea a muscle relaxant, making it valuable during labor. The prickly sting was also put to use in lieu of caffeine. Hunters would rub themselves with nettles to help stay awake all night.
I know at least one person nowdays who rubs nettle leaves across his knuckles when his arthritis acts up. I've also read on the web about nettle tea curing cancer, which I think may be a stretch. When we were kids, the accepted antidote to nettle stings was the slightly gooey sap of the brake fern, which was reliably found nearby. Aloe works too.
The Sumas property is nettle's paradise, the rich riverbottom loam producing armies of 6-foot specimens. That response to good soil may be one reason that early ethnographers reported Quileute women made their best gardens in soil where nettles had been cleared away. Nettles are also an excellent addition to the compost bin. For the kitchen, though, you want the soft, new growth only. Mature plants are too stringy. I stop collecting when they top 6 inches. Use rubber gloves to pick and clean them.
In general, nettle make a reasonable substitute for chard or spinach in any recipe that requires cooking. They cook very quickly, so adjust the time accordingly. The following basic recipes are from Winter Harvest.
Cream of Nettle Soup
4 cups young nettle leaves
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups milk or light cream (I'm going to try it next with soy milk)
2 tablespoons grated onion
2 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
grated Parmesan to taste
Wash nettles, do not dry, and steam them in the water that clings to them. Puree with their liquid, adding some stock by the tablespoon if necessary. Melt butter in a medium saucepan, add onion, and cook until soft. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until color starts to turn. Add stock, salt, pepper, and nettle puree and heat just to boiling. Lower heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add milk or cream and heat gently. Sprinkle each serving with Parmesan to taste.
4 cups nettle young nettle leaves, loosely packed
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
5 tablespoons butter, divided (or any combination of butter and olive oil)
2 shallots, minced, or 2 tablespoons minced onion
5 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper
pinch of fresh tarragon (optional)
Steam nettle leaves until limp. Remove from heat, press out moisture, and chop. Mix with ricotta and set aside. Melt 1 tablespoon butter, or heat oil, in a small saucepan, add shallots or onion, and cook gently until they start to turn color. Do not let them brown. Stir them into the nettle mixture. Add salt and pepper to beaten eggs. Melt remaining butter, or pour oil, in an omelet pan or your closest approximation. Add eggs and cook over low heat, loosening edges as they solidify and letting the uncooked egg run under. Spoon ricotta-nettle mixture onto one half of the omelet, leaving a 2-inch margin bare. Slide a spatula gently under the other half and fold omelet under the filling. Cook very gently, about 2 minutes on each side, sprinkle with tarragon, and serve hot.
Serves 2 or 3