Everybody’s talking about nettles

The stinging nettle! Nobody ever forgets that first brush with it. Especially not the poets, it turns out; for literary legs, the stinging nettle ranks right up there with the rose. But of course it plays all the bad-boy parts:

“In dreams, again, I plucked a flower That clung with pain and stung with power, Yea, nettled me, body and mind.” How Love Looked for Hell,  Sidney Lanier

“Fame blowing out from her golden trumpet a jubilant challenge to Time and to Fate; Slander, her shadow, sowing the nettle on all the laurell’d graves of the Great.” Vastness. Alfred Lord Tennyson

“But I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Hotspur, in Henry the Fourth  Part I, Act II. Scene III. Shakespeare

And people figured out early on that where you find nettles, you are likely to find dock:

Of the old house, only a few crumbled  Courses of brick, smothered in nettle and dock. The House That Was. Laurence Binyon.

Which is a big mercy, because a crushed dock leaf can rub away the  nettle’s sting:

My pity bids the dock-leaves grow Large, that a little child may know Where he shall heal the nettle’s sting. Hertha. Nora Chesson

Even Chaucer was on to this–he quotes an “old charm” for curing the sting of a nettle:

“Netle in, dokke out”: ‘Nettle in, dock out.

Dock rub nettle out! ‘Troilus and Crisseda. Chaucer

So, you are thinking, where does this take us with the whole food blog idea?–Well, I went off on a foraging expedition to Vashon Island, and we bagged heaps of nettles! (And did find a use for a few leaves of dock while we were at it.) Apres foraging, trip leader Becky boiled up a huge vat of nettles, and we all had some of the broth as nettle tea. (Do you love spinach? You will love nettle tea.)

Trip leader Becky is chef and cookbook author Becky Selengut (www.CornucopiaCuisine.com) who organized the trip with Jeanette Smith, ecologist and outdoor adventure leader (http://www.backroads.com/). Also along to share her expertise was environmental anthropologist Melissa Poe (Institute for Culture and Ecology, www.ifcae.org). These people know their stuff!–We learned tons. Other parts of the landscape we munched on: sheep sorrel, dandelions, salmonberry flowers, chickweed, peppercress, Douglas fir (!–Doug fir tea, anyone?–delicious.)

Then, after a quick stop at Hogsback Farm for still more salad greens, a ferry ride back across the Sound, and a huge lunch at Spring Hill Restaurant in West Seattle, we made a quick stop at Mutual Fish to buy some halibut and went back to Becky’s condo.

While Jet and Melissa brewed still more teas and made a huge salad out of our foraged goodies and salad greens, Becky took us through making our first dish for dinner, nettle ravioli. Homemade pasta with a filling of our nettles (blanched and refreshed), goat cheese, ricotta, and a bit of balsamic vinegar. Plus a brown butter shallot sauce. Plus (here’s Becky’s poetry!) dress the dish with mint leaves and salmonberry flower petals.

On to the halibut. Portion the fish (I could spend a couple of pages on Becky’s technique), fire up a wok dedicated to smoking (as Becky says, her ghetto wok), and put some wood chips in there over high heat. Float a wire-mesh grill at the top third or so of the wok, place the halibut portions on it, and cover. Smoking ensues. (Suggestion!: put large fans at all your windows, pointing out.)

Now, you want to pull together the components to finish the halibut dish–nettle sauce, morel mushrooms, fried nettle garnish. So timing is everything. (Luckily, Becky and team were on it, because by this time I was having a glass of wine and reading Becky’s fish cookbook. Stay tuned for a review.)

But let’s focus on that nettle sauce. Basically, you put some of the blanched nettles, some parsley, and some yogurt into a blender and zap it until smooth.

Assembly time. The sauced fish would have been fantastic all by itself. But these folks are also poets of presentation!–beautiful fish, beautiful sauce, beautiful garnish of morels and fried nettle leaves.

And a big finish with Jet’s rhubarb star anise crumble. None of us wanted ice cream on top until we all did.

See some pictures by an actual photographer, Jennifer Durham, fellow forager (http://gallery.me.com/tennjd#101059). Also visit her company site: http://www.jenniferdurhamphotography.com/

Read more than you ever wanted to know about the botany of nettles:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinging_nettle