Inhofe and his ilk can bury their heads in the D.C. snow and deny climate change, but here in the Pacific Northwest we just experienced the warmest January on record. Not the warmest in 10 years, not the warmest in a generation—the warmest since scientists first started keeping track, going back to 1891 in the case of Seattle. This is just one of many indicators—from melting glaciers in the Cascades to the changing migration patterns of birds, butterflies, and fish—that a degree or two of rising mercury is remaking the planet in dramatic ways.
The results of our balmy mid-winter beach break have been painfully clear, so to speak. Stinging nettles in the lowlands are already at harvestable size, with some well over a foot tall. I harvested my first batch on February 8. That’s two weeks earlier than my previous earliest date. In fact, this year I could have found tender young nettles of six inches or so at the end of January.
To re-phrase an old saw, if the world gives you stinging nettles, make Nettle Gnocchi.
Whenever I make a potato-based gnocchi (as opposed to semolina-based) I’m always skeptical until the little pillows are safely plated and intact. So much can seemingly go wrong (though it usually works out). I improvised on the same recipe as the one for Oxtail & Porcini Gnocchi, which is based on a recipe from 101 Cookbooks. But after making gnocchi a handful of times in the past year I can say that recipes for potato dumplings are more like guidelines. The important thing is to get a feel for the dough. I don’t think I’ve ever used the same amount of flour twice, and this is especially true when adding a wet ingredient such as boiled nettles to the mix.
So think of the amounts below as estimates. The best thing to do is start with less than the full cup of flour and then keep adding. You may end up using well over a cup as I did.
1. Boil nettles for a minute or two to neutralize sting. Remove to cold water. Next wring out excess water. Chop nettles, measure out a cup and then whir in a food processor.
2. Cut potatoes in half and boil in salted nettle water until tender, thirty minutes or more. Remove from water one at a time and peel. Break down potatoes with a fork and allow to cool. Make sure to attack lumps but don’t over-mash.
3. Mix nettles into potatoes by hand, a little at a time.
4. Sprinkle a handful of flour over your work space. Pull potato-nettle mixture into a mound on floured surface and make a volcano-like crater. Pour beaten egg into crater and sprinkle 3/4 of the flour over top. Start working the dough with metal spatulas or your hands, adding more flour and folding the dough into itself as you go. I find this step gets messy unless I make sure to use plenty of flour.
5. Split the dough into 5 or 6 balls. The dough is ready when you can easily roll out each ball into a long snake. Again, a work surface dusted generously with flour makes this easier. Now cut into pillows.
6. Add gnocchi to salted boiling water. (You can re-use your nettle-potato water.) When they float to the surface they’re done. Remove with a slotted spoon.
I ate my Nettle Gnocchi with two different sauces. A simple red sauce with grated parm works quite nicely, the acidity of the tomatoes marrying well with the high green note of the nettles.
But even better, in my opinion, is—surprise!—a sweet, herbed cream sauce. I know, my love for the cream sauce seems to know no bounds. Just trust me. For this more decadent preparation, try briefly sauteing fresh chopped herbs from the garden (I used sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, and chives) in butter, splashing with a little cognac that bubbles off (but not before leaving a pleasant sweetness), and finishing with heavy cream. Pour over the gnocchi and sprinkle with parmesan. As you can see from my picture below I was in a bit of a hurry to eat this meal. I used half-and-half, which separated somewhat from the butter. Still, it was an amazing lunch.