Category Archives: nettles

Wild Greens Workshop

heyday_farm2It’s that time again for those of us on the West Coast. The woods and meadows are waking up. Wild greens—tasty, nutritious, free—decorate the woods and forest fringes.

To ring in the spring harvest, I’ll be teaching a foraging and cooking workshop at Heyday Farm on Bainbridge Island on March 27, with a focus on wild spring greens, especially stinging nettles. As I’ve said here before, nettles are the backbone of my spring foraging. I use nettles in soups, pastas, and sauces, and I put up large quantities of nettle pesto to have on hand year-round.

At Heyday, we’ll spend the morning foraging in the woods around the farm, learning about and harvesting what’s in season. Back at the historic Heyday Farm kitchen and farmhouse, we’ll learn several ways to pair and prepare our catch. The class will include a satisfying lunch. Cost is $110. Please sign up through Bainbridge Island Parks and Recreation, or by calling (206) 842-2306.

Halibut with Nettle Sauce, Peas & Miner’s Lettuce

halibut1I love this time of year. The woods are greening up, robins wake me before dawn, and wild foods are everywhere for the harvesting. Last week I found a clutch of fresh young oyster mushrooms sprouting on an alder; the other day I found another bunch in full fruition that was ready for picking. Fiddleheads are up, miner’s lettuce is carpeting the ground, and stinging nettles are everywhere.

The miner’s lettuce I used for this recipe is growing in a nice urban patch not far from my Seattle home. This is Claytonia perfoliata, not to be confused with the more common variety in Puget Sound, Siberian miner’s lettuce, Claytonia sibirica. A few leaves scattered on the plate lend a sharp green note, while spring peas add texture. I like to use fresh shelling peas if possible, but frozen baby peas will do in a pinch. The sauce is quick and easy if you happen to have stinging nettle pesto on hand; I always have some frozen at the ready.

Stinging Nettle Sauce

2 cubes frozen stinging nettle pesto, defrosted
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp diced shallot
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Saute shallot in butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat.

2. Stir in stinging nettle pesto.

3. Lower heat and whisk in cream. Thicken to desired consistency, adding more cream if necessary.

For the final dish, ladle stinging nettle sauce and cooked peas into a shallow bowl. Plate pan-fried halibut fillet (see my friend Hank Shaw’s tutorial for pan-searing fish) over sauce and garnish with miner’s lettuce leaves. This recipe will make enough sauce for 2.

If you’ve put up quantities of stinging nettles and have some nettle pesto in the freezer, this is a fast restaurant-style meal. The pesto is also ideal for serving kids a quick and healthy pasta too.

Wild Bibimbap

I’ve been on a Korean comfort food kick of late, and comfort food doesn’t get much more Cadillac-like than a big steaming bowl of bibimbap.

The translation is “mixed rice”—it’s basically rice covered with dollops of prepared dishes, or namul, which are then mixed together at table. The rice is heaped into a large bowl (all the better if it’s a heated stone bowl, or dolsot, unlike the cheap plastic bowl pictured), and then a variety of meats and vegetables are arranged in a colorful and artfully balanced manner over the rice. The piece de resistance is a fried egg on top. A vinegared gochujang sauce ties it all together.

Here’s the thing: bibimbap is traditionally served with at least one wild ingredient, gosari, also known as bracken fern (and sometimes called fernbrake on imported packages of dried bracken). This time of year the young fern shoots can be eaten fresh. Click here for instructions on foraging and preparing bracken (plus a health advisory). For bibimbap I like to cut the parboiled bracken into 3-inch sections and stir-fry with a little sesame oil, garlic, soy, and Chinese cooking wine.

I added two other wild ingredients to my bibimbap: stinging nettles and oyster mushrooms. The nettles are a substitute for the traditional spinach, the oysters for shiitake. To prepare the nettles, I harvested several cups of tender young nettle tops and boiled them for a minute to neutralize the sting, then wrung out the water with my hands before giving the nettles a quick rough chop. Next, I stir-fried them in a little peanut oil with minced garlic, a pinch of salt, and soy sauce. The oyster mushrooms got cut into strips and stir-fried the same way until slightly browned on the edges.

Bibimbap is simple fare, but it requires alacrity in the kitchen—and with so many different ingredients, my advice is to make this dish for four or more people. Do all the prep work first (i.e., the chopping), then stir-fry each of the namul toppings in quick succession. Mound onto a large serving plate and keep covered. Other common toppings include: julienned and stir-fried zucchini; julienned carrots, which can be served raw or quickly stir-fried; bean sprouts, which should be boiled for a couple minutes until tender and then drained and tossed with a splash of sesame oil; and thinly sliced steak, bulgogi, marinated beforehand with a little sesame oil, garlic, soy sauce, and sugar before stir-frying.

Once all this busy work is complete, use your innate artistic skills to make an eye-catching presentation, kick back in a cozy place with friends and some cold beers, and dig in.


The Urban Naturalist

I’ll be contributing articles on occasion to the Seattle P.I.‘s Urban Naturalist blog, helmed by Waverly Fitzgerald. Here’s my first post, on that ornery yet useful weed, the stinging nettle. The post was actually inspired by the children’s book, Wake Up, It’s Spring!, which my daughter Ruby broke out of retirement this week.

Nettle-Miso Halibut with Squash Purée

Happy new year everyone! This past year has been a busy one here at FOTL headquarters, with mostly non-blog related work. To my regular readers, THANK YOU for continuing to stop by despite the slowdown in posts. In coming months I’ll have more to say about new developments but suffice to say 2013 should be an exciting year.

In the meantime, this dish is emblematic of kitchen resolutions I’ll be trying to keep in the new year, namely an effort to think more about flavors and how they work together regardless of tradition or the proliferation of online recipe homogeneity. Improvisation: we’ll be shooting for more of that in the coming year.

On that note, here’s something I pulled together with a bunch of leftovers, a nice piece of fish, and a jar of dried stinging nettles that’s been mocking me from its cobwebby corner of late.

Halibut with Nettle-Miso Glaze

24 oz halibut fillet, cut into 4 portions
1/4 cup white miso
1/4 cup aji-mirin
1/4 cup sugar
2 – 3 tbsp dried stinging nettle

1. Pre-heat oven to broil.

2. Combine miso, aji-mirin, and sugar in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and whisk together into a glaze. Add dried stinging nettle to taste.

3. Cover baking pan with a sheet of tin foil. Grease foil with cooking oil. Place halibut fillets on greased foil and brush with nettle-miso gaze. Broil for several minutes, depending on thickness of fillets, until glaze is bubbling and starting to brown. Fish should be tender, opaque, and easily flaked.

4. Plate glazed halibut over squash puree.

Squash Purée

2 large delicata squash
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 thumb ginger, peeled & diced
2 tbsp diced fennel bulb
1/4 cup sake
chicken stock
salt and white pepper, to taste

1. Cut squash in half and spoon out seeds. Rub with oil, season, and bake in 400-degree oven until soft, 30 – 45 minutes depending on size of squash. Scoop out squash and set aside.

2. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and sauté ginger and fennel for a minute or two. Add squash, mashing together. Pour in sake and allow to bubble off, stirring.

3. When sake has mostly cooked off, add chicken stock a little at a time and mix with immersion blender until consistency is fairly smooth. Season with salt and white pepper.

Serves 4.

The miso glaze is nearly representative of what I mentioned above as the proliferation of online recipe homogeneity. I’m sure you know what I mean. There’s so much sameness on the web, a result of food bloggers copying each other. Mediocre recipes can now be found, nearly word for word, in such abundance that they might seem like classics. This glaze is actually pretty good (and simple!), but it’s certainly not original in most aspects. I tweaked it with some stinging nettle to add an earthy dimension. The squash recipe was a complete improvisation and complemented the fish.

Here’s to more improvisation in 2013!

Bay Area Bounty

West Marin at the end of March is a trip into Eden. The headlands have greened up from winter rains (admittedly spotty this year), the rivers run high, and the woods and meadows overflow with a riot of tangled undergrowth, much of it edible.

More than 20 years ago, when I lived briefly in Berkeley and San Francisco, I heard stories about Bolinas. Tucked away on a thumb of land south of Pt. Reyes and between the Pacific Ocean and Bolinas Lagoon, the community shunned conventional ways. The funny-looking locals farmed funny-looking crops in funny ways. Heck, maybe they even foraged (gasp!). This led to busloads of tourists wanting pictures of the native wildlife. Whenever the county erected a sign tipping off lookey-loos to their whereabouts, the locals tore it down. There’s still no sign today, but the tenets of organic farming that began largely in this valley are now practiced all over the country; local artisan food makers are celebrated across the land for their award-winning breads, brews, cheeses, meats, and preserves; and foraging is just another common sense way to gather fresh, healthy food.

This past weekend, thanks to organizer Marin Organic, I joined with a few dozen food and outdoor lovers from all over the Bay to wander among the stunning beauty and bounty of Bolinas. [Listen to a radio story about the event here.] Kevin Feinstein, co-author of The Bay Area Forager, was on hand to share his local wisdom, and we were fortunate to have a few practicing chefs (plus eager students) to help with the afternoon feast. The weather looked ominous. Driving over Mount Tam, my rental car shook violently in the wind. Rain blowing in off the Pacific slashed sideways at my windshield. But by the time we poked our heads out from under the eaves of the Gospel Flat Farm stand, the rain had subsided and the sun was working hard to shoehorn clouds out the way.

Andrea Blum Photo

We all walked across the street to the Star Route Farms property that would be our primary hunting ground. Normally I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about picking wild foods next to a farm, but Star Route has been organic for nearly four decades, and it shows. The rows between crops are loaded with weeds—healthy, nutritious, delicious weeds—weeds that get harvested right along with the domestic vegetables. [See top photo.] We picked nasturtium flowers, wild radish seed pods, mallow, cat’s ear, and other weeds before climbing up into the wet jungle that rises above the farm, protecting its watershed with a forest of native trees and a host of native and non-native edible plants.

Robust patches of miner’s lettuce forced us to choose our steps carefully lest we trample a good food source. The stinging nettles were tall, nearly too tall for harvest, so we snipped the tops of the youngest, tenderest plants. Chickweed flourished among the miner’s lettuce. Huge thickets of thimbleberry, already budding out, towered above us on the hillside, and red elderberry in flower hung overhead. It was an orgy of wild foods. Kevin pulled a few thistles from the damp soil and demonstrated how to peel the lower stalk and boil the root (note to self: I really need to do a dedicated thistle post one of these days).

Andrea Blum Photo

Back at Gospel Flat we turned our attention to processing and cooking our catch. Everyone happily pitched in. The wine flowed. Kevin prepared a taste test of thistles, both raw and cooked, while the rest of us worked on the three main dishes of the day: oysters, soup, and salad. An appetizer of pan-fried oysters donated by Tomales Bay Oyster Company, dressed with a homemade aioli (thanks Kerry!) on Brick Maiden Bakery baguette, was devoured on the spot. Next came an enormous salad of miner’s lettuce, chickweed, cat’s ear, mallow, nasturtiums, wild onion, wild mustard flowers, and wild radish seed pods that filled an entire wash basin. Toasted walnuts, crumbled blue cheese from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, and a raspberry vinaigrette added finishing touches to the salad.

Andrea Blum Photo

Meanwhile several volunteers chopped onions and garlic, peeled potatoes, and tended three kettles of Stinging Nettle Soup cooking on a propane stove on the back porch. Despite the early rain showers, the day was just getting better with each passing hour. We added a hearty pour of Straus Family cream to the soup and had at it.

Nothing beats tromping around in the woods in search of strange and often maligned plants and then transforming them into culinary marvels amidst a hubbub of wine and cheerful conversation. Coming together to nourish our minds and bodies was the order of the day. These are the basic underlying principles of community.

Photo Andrea Blum

Foraging is often seen as a survival skill, a way for the individual to go it alone in a harsh environment and still prosper. Though I value my alone time for art, contemplation, spiritual renewal, or any number of other things—and have indulged this solitary life for months at a time in the wilderness—at the end of the day I would never renounce my need or desire to be among other people, to share in ideas and joys, to participate in the human drama. For me, foraging is not a path to isolation—it’s a way to connect.

I’ve been supremely disappointed in our U.S. Supreme Court in recent years as it seems to thumb its judicial nose at the very concept of community in America, as if liberty can only be defined as the individual giving the finger to everyone else. Clearly, since our institutions are failing us, it’s up to us, the people, to create community—and to hold onto it dearly.

Nettle Green Curry

This was more or less an experiment. I wanted to see how the flavor of stinging nettles might accompany a traditional Thai green curry. I modified a typical recipe for green curry paste to my own liking and then added boiled chopped nettles a little at a time to the food processor until I could taste a change in the overall profile. At that point I added a little more nettle and called it good.

The result was a green curry with an earthier, woodsier flavor. You can adjust this earthiness to your own palate by playing with the proportions of nettles, basil, and cilantro. The paste is incredibly easy to make, and it tastes so much fresher, brighter, and greener than a store-bought paste. All you need is a food processor or blender (or a mortar and pestle if you have the time and stamina).

Nettle Green Curry Paste

1 cup stinging nettles, boiled, drained & chopped
1/2 cup basil, chopped
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
1 kaffir lime leaf, chopped
1 shallot, peeled
4 large cloves garlic
1 large thumb ginger, peeled and sliced
1 jalapeño pepper, sliced
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp shrimp paste (or salt)
2 – 3 tbsp lime juice
3 – 4 tbsp fish sauce
6 tbsp coconut milk

Add more coconut milk to the paste in the food processor if it’s too dry. For the finished curry I used a small saucepan to cook a few heaping spoonfuls of the paste in a tablespoon of peanut oil for a minute to unleash the flavors, then slowly stirred in less than a cup of coconut milk until desired consistency and added a few more splashes of fish sauce and a sprinkling of brown sugar. Meanwhile I broiled a fillet of local sablefish for 10 minutes, which got plated on a bed of rice. The curry was deliberately thick so that it could be dolloped on the broiled fish with a garnish of thinly sliced red bell pepper, green onion, and cilantro on top. Crushed peanuts completed the dish. You can adjust the texture, spiciness, and sweetness of the curry to whatever you’re cooking. The paste should keep for a week in the refrigerator, or longer if frozen.

Stinging Nettle Gnudi with Sage Butter & White Truffles

Stinging nettles are emerging right on schedule in Puget Sound. I’ve written reams in the past about my weed crush on nettles, so click on the link above if you want to learn more about their natural history and culinary applications.

Figuring the dastardly yet oh-so-tasty greens were bound to be up by now, I went for a walk this past weekend in a Seattle green space with my son to check on signs of life. Spring premonitions were everywhere: Indian plum leafing out, towhees trilling their cat-like songs, street corner sandwich boards advertising little league tryouts. Sure enough, stinging nettles—always one of the first splashes of chlorophyl on an otherwise drab, mid-winter floor—peeked out from the leaf litter like groundhogs nosing out of burrows on shadow patrol, some of them just barely tall enough for harvest.

Riley demonstrated one of his favorite skills learned at Wilderness Camp: he carefully picked a nettle leaf with his bare hand by pinching its hairless top and folded it over several times into a little package which he then popped into his mouth and ate. Look Dad, no sting! We went to a regular spot and harvested a grocery bag worth of tender young nettle tops.

This time Riley wasn’t so lucky. He got stung on his calf, his youthful skin immediately turning red with little raised welts. Nearby he found a frond of licorice fern with visible spores underneath and rubbed it vigorously on the affected area. This noted folk remedy has never worked for me personally, but Riley insisted that the fern did the trick. I took a look and was surprised to see that the redness and welts were really gone. Next time we might harvest that licorice fern for food, too.

Nettle Gnocchi has been a go-to recipe in recent years, but until the other day I had never made…

Nettle Gnudi

Yep, naked—as in naked ravioli. Gnudi are basically ravioli fillings without their pasta clothing. You mix a bit of flour into the cheese filling and shape it into little balls or pillows. You can serve them boiled, but I like adding one more step and pan-frying the gnudi so that the rich, creamy inside is contrasted by the fried exterior. Finely chopped nettles (or spinach or herbs) add an extra dimension of flavor. It’s up to you how much herbage to add. I didn’t want my gnudi to be overpowered by the nettles, so I limited mine to a scant, loose cup; you could double that amount and end up with much greener, woodsier gnudi.

2 cups ricotta
3/4 cup grated parmesan
2 eggs
1 cup boiled and chopped nettles
1/2 cup flour, plus more for rolling
1/8 tsp nutmeg
salt and pepper
olive oil
fresh sage, chopped

1. Blanche stinging nettles in boiling water for a minute. Drain, shock with cold water, and squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Chop finely to fill a loose cup.

2. Drain ricotta and stir into large bowl with parmesan, eggs, chopped nettles, a dash of nutmeg, and seasoning. Slowly add flour. Mixture should be damp and tacky without sticking to hands. If a half cup of flour doesn’t do the trick, keep adding a little more at a time until you can form a wet ball in your hand without it adhering.

3. Sprinkle work surface generously with flour. Take a snowball-sized handful of cheese mixture and roll in flour until thoroughly coated. Roll out into a snake with a half-inch to inch diameter depending on preference. Cut into pillows. Dredge the cut ends in flour and shape each pillow as desired. Set aside on floured plate.

4. Boil gnudi in batches in salted water. They’re done when they float to the surface. Use a slotted spoon to remove from boiling water to a clean plate. Place cooked gnudi on wax paper on a cookie sheet. I like to boil a batch after each snowball’s worth of filling is shaped. While that batch is boiling (it only takes a couple minutes), I move the previous boiled batch from plate to wax paper. Then I continue with another handful.

5. Pan fry gnudi in olive oil and butter with chopped sage leaves until nicely browned. Leftover boiled gnudi can be refrigerated.

Nettle Gnudi with Lamb Ragu, Carrot Puree & Sage Butter Crumbs

For a more involved dish I made a lamb shoulder ragu by browning diced lamb shoulder in olive oil with shallot, deglazing with a splash of white wine, and stirring in a teaspoon of tomato paste. This got served over the pan-fried gnudi along with a sauce of pureed stewed carrots and a sprinkling of sage butter crumbs.

Gnudi are easier to make than potato gnocchi, and the melt-in-your-mouth inside is a truly wonderful thing. Another reason to get yer weed on.

Earthly Combo: Stinging Nettles & Morels

This spring I’ve happened on a seasonal pairing that will be a regular part of the menu from now on: stinging nettles and morels. In particular, the combo involves Stinging Nettle Pesto with sauteed morels. You might wonder whether these two supremely earthy tastes would cancel each other out. To the contrary, they complement each other, one cool and woodsy with a sharp bite; the other rich and evocative of the ground beneath our feet.

We first tried the pairing as a crostini. Marty surprised me with it one evening while I was busy making a Pinot Noir reduction. She lightly toasted sliced baguette, spread on ricotta followed by the nettle pesto, and finished the crostini with sauteed morels. We knew she was onto something with the first bite. It sounds so simple, yes, and you can almost imagine the flavors if you’ve eaten these foods before. But the pairing is more than the sum of its parts.

The next try was a pizza with the pesto and morels, plus mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and a sprinkling of garden greens. While Marty is known for making some mean pizza, this was off the hook.

Most of you will have to wait until next year to give it a shot. Stinging nettles are flowering across much of their range and morels are dust nearly everywhere except the higher elevations of the Northwest. I’m hoping I might get one more chance when I venture into the mountains in late June.

Italian Nettle Sausage Pie

And I always thought baking was for control freaks. Silly me. Kate McDermott—aka the Pie Lady, dubbed “the rock star of pie” by Seattle Magazine—is not your typical baker. She doesn’t worry about humidity or get hung up by exact measurements. She goes against the grain, which is her way. It’s more of a Zen thing. “Feel the dough,” she likes to say, only half-kidding.

The evening began with a trip out to the chicken coop, where Kate nabbed fresh eggs. Next she unwrapped a tan disc and slapped it on the counter: the dough, just liberated from cold storage. At that moment it could have been dropped at center ice by a man in black and white pinstripes. “Rule number one,” she said. “The only rule. Chill out.” She handed me a mixing bowl. This, too, was zamboni cold.

Of course, like much of what she says, Kate’s admonition to chill has multiple meanings. As I started to roll out my hockey puck of dough she stopped me. I was thinking too much. “I’ll change the music,” she offered. You need the right music to roll by. The smooth vibes of Seal soared out of Kate’s kitchen speakers; I remembered how an old three-pinner friend of mine swore by this record for a fresh foot of powder in the back-country.

Kate’s own style of rolling is more along the lines of the whirling dervish variety. She dances to the music, swings her hair to and fro, and belts out an Aretha Franklin chorus during the next song.

This all helps to explain why she calls her business Art of the Pie—as opposed to, say, Science of the Pie. More dionysian than apollonian, Kate’s vision is for a world filled with pies, in which pie is merely the starting point for better things to come. “It’s a movement,” she laughs. Her own part in the movement can be measured by the 50 pounds of leaf lard she goes through each month, the 75 pounds of weekly apples in season, and the hundreds of students who have graduated from her four-hour class with a determination to spread the gospel of pie.

As for me, the proof was, indeed, in the pie, with a crust of flakey perfection and a savory filling that highlighted the brightness of wild weeds. Really, I can’t recommend this recipe enough. It’s a version of a classic, using stinging nettles instead of spinach, to superior effect. Our tweaks included the addition of leeks, nutmeg, red pepper flakes, and lemon juice.

I learned a lot during this pie-making session, and though I won’t go so far as to say my new skills are ready for prime time, Kate has put me on the path to a fresh understanding of baking with her pie-making mojo.

1 pound sweet Italian sausage
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
3 leeks, thinly sliced (discard green tops)
6 eggs
20 oz stinging nettles, blanched and squeezed dry
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 tsp teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
fresh nutmeg to taste
2 tsp lemon juice
1 10-inch pastry for a double crust pie
1 tablespoon water

1. In a skillet over medium heat, saute sausage, leek, and garlic.

2. Separate one egg and set the yolk aside. In a mixing bowl, beat the egg white and remaining eggs. Mix in nettles, mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese, salt, pepper, nutmeg, red pepper flakes, lemon juice, and sausage mixture.

3. Line a deep 9 or 10-inch pie dish with bottom pastry (with a 9-inch dish you will likely have leftover filling). Add filling. Cover with top pastry. Trim, seal, and flute edges. Cut slits in top. Beat water and remaining egg yolk; brush over top.

4. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, then lower heat to 400 degrees for another 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbly. Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting.