Nettles are like life in the time of coronavirus. They are irritating, then painful, but depending on how you handle them they can be nourishing and delicious. While navigating social distancing, cancelled plans, and a precarious economy, I am drawn to the outdoors and the reliable patterns of nature.
In western Oregon we sometimes get warm sunny weather in early spring. I know it's time to head out for nettles when the cottonwood buds burst. We pack some gloves and bags and head out to one of Western Oregon’s riparian forests to wander along the riverbank to start the foraging season. Sticky Cottonwood buds perfume the air and soft needles of Douglas fir exhale after a cold winter as stinging nettle emerges from the leafy duff.
Nettles are identified by their deep green serrated leaves growing in opposing pairs covered in tiny hairs. I harvest when the nettle is shorter than my knees. Using a gloved hand, snip the nettle about 2 leaf sets down, harvesting just the shoots. The nettle will continue its growth as a tall two pronged fork, so it isn't harmed by removing the tip. Once you've found one nettle, look around you since they grow together like a little nettle city. Only remove as much as you need. I pick some for dinner and some for the freezer.
Nettles lose their sting once cooked, so blanch them for 20 seconds in boiling water before handling them. Drain the nettles, shock them in ice water, and squeeze out the liquid. Their flavor is vegetal and rich, similar to green peppers and artichoke, and they are more nutritious than spinach. I portion them into 5 oz piles and then package them into containers for the refrigerator and the freezer.
This recipe is one of my favorites to highlight the flavor of nettles for my wild cocktail parties. During this time of coronavirus and social distancing I'll be taking my cocktail party to the forest with a few friends, some fresh air, and a pitcher of Riverain Negroni.
4 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon minced shallot
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
5 ounces fresh nettle leaves, blanched, chopped, and squeezed dry.
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
3/4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese divided
1 baguette, sliced, or crackers
Mix cream cheese and sour cream together with shallot, salt, and pepper. Add the nettles, chopped oregano, parmesan, and 1/2 c mozzarella. Mix together. Pack into an oven safe vessel and top with the remaining mozzarella. Bake at 400 until browned on top. Remove from oven. To pack the gratin for the forest wrap it in foil and place it in a small cooler (or in this case hotbox). Serve with sliced baguette or crackers.
Batched Negroni yields 6 cocktails
1 c Riverain gin
1c Sweet vermouth
1/2 c Aperol
1/2 c Water
Combine in a pitcher. Serve chilled, Orange zest for garnish