I’m only allowed to tell you about Dogshit Gulch because Shorty and I are in New Mexico this spring, which means she can’t pick nettles there. Otherwise, if I told you about this spot, I might get punished. And when you mix nettles and punishment, ouch.
Dogshit Gulch—not its real name, of course—is a steep, west-facing canyon near town. It has a little creek next to a trail that, in spring, is often layered with a slippery layer of brown-smeared ice. If you don’t know where I’m talking about, any creek or river bottom will do.
During the wet months of spring, when the last of the snows are gone from the hillsides, it’s time to gather nettles. While the plants will keep growing all summer, the supple shoots of springtime, when they’re between 6 and 16 inches tall, are the ones you want to gather and eat. In a place like Dogshit Gulch you don’t want to harvest them right along the trail, for obvious reasons.
If you find a good patch, you should cash in. Nettles are among the first of the wild edible plants you can find in enough quantities to preserve for later use, either by blanching and freezing or dehydration. Don’t worry about decimating the nettle patch. It’s almost impossible. And nettles aren’t native to the United States anyway. They deserve to die.
As a spring tonic, nettles deliver a spectrum of nutrients, such as calcium, iron, manganese, potassium and protein, and have traditionally been used as supplements for people who don’t get enough meat or fruit. They also taste really good, and can sting you with venomous barbs, which, believe it or not, isn’t always a bad thing.
Nettles resemble mint, with fuzzy, jagged leaves paired opposite a central stalk. The venom contained in those dramatically un-mint-like hollow spines contains a cocktail of irritants, including formic acid, the active ingredient in red ant venom. The plant’s scientific name, Urtica dioica, is related to the Latin Urticaria, which means skin rash. You need gloves to harvest it, and scissors, unless you want to get stung. And some people, it turns out, do.
“The walls of the hairs are composed of silica, i.e. natural glass, and contact breaks the fragile tip of the hair, which is sharp enough to push into the skin, while at the same time the venom, stored under pressure in the expanded base, travels up the hair and is injected into the skin through the broken tip,” reports one website (www.mordor.u-net.com/smbd/nettles.html) in its in-depth discussion on sado-botany.
I learned about sado-botany while searching for nettle information online, evidently with the “safe search” filter on my browser turned off. It offers thoughtful tips on nettle-enhanced kinky sex, including the sensible warning to avoid use of the New Zealand nettle, which is strong enough to kill a horse.
“[Sado-botany] enthusiasts put nettles inside underwear,” notes another online sado-botany source, practicallyedible.com.
For those more interested in wholesome nourishment, you can wilt nettle stingers by cooking them. A minute or two of steam is all it takes. Nettles have a wild flavor, earthy like spinach, rich like asparagus.
Stir-fried nettles with garlic and soy is a great, simple option. Blanched nettles can also make a great pesto in conjunction with the usual pesto constituents, minus the basil.
I learned the following nettle ravioli-filling recipe from Chef Jeff Miller, formerly of Papoose Creek Lodge, and a specialist in wild-foods cooking. This filling would rock on pizza, too.
Blanch the nettles a handful at a time in boiling salted water, then plunge them into an ice bath. The ice-water bath, known as “shocking,” stops the cooking immediately and fixes a bright green color. Squeeze out the water from the shocked nettles.
In a food processor, blend 1 cup blanched nettles, 4 tablespoons grated parmesan, 4 tablespoons ricotta cheese, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1 teaspoon nutmeg and a pinch of salt.
For the dough, follow the pasta recipe of your choice. Joy of Cooking works fine. Roll pasta into sheets.
On one sheet, place teaspoon-sized dollops of filling about 1.5 inches apart. Dipping your finger in water, draw lines between the dollops and around the perimeter of the sheet, and cover with another pasta sheet. Starting at one end, firmly press along the wet lines, squeezing out the air and bonding the pasta around each piece of ravioli. Cut apart with a butter knife or pasta cutter.
To cook, drop them in a big pot of boiling, salted, olive-oiled water for about 2 minutes, or until they float. Set aside 1/2 cup pasta water for the sauce.
Strain the ravioli, toss in olive oil and minced raw garlic, and set aside. Make the sauce as follows:
Pan-toast 1/2 cup crushed walnuts on medium heat. When they are hot and golden, add half a stick of butter. When the butter starts to brown—but before it burns—add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Lower heat and toss the ravioli in this sauce with a splash of pasta water. It should sizzle a little. Don’t overload the pan with ravioli. Serve sprinkled with toasted walnuts scooped from the pan.
Ask Ari: The fine print
The news that I’m in New Mexico for a few years was met with a mixed response. One reader wrote, “We miss you already.” Another wondered, “WTF? Where is my steam juicer that you borrowed?”
Well, I miss you too, Missoula. As for that steam juicer, I’m really sorry I split town before returning it. I should be punished—though preferably not with nettles. Rest assured, the steam juicer is clean and safe, and I’ll be coming home for a visit in May. If it’s cool, I’ll return it then.
And this just in:
Q: Dear Flash,
May you continue to enjoy your time in New Mexico. I’m glad to hear you will continue your column in the Independent.
I have a gardening question for you. What are your thoughts on this advice, which I got off the Internet: “Newspaper weeds away: Wet newspapers, put layers around the plants overlapping as you go, cover with mulch and forget about weeds. Weeds will get through some gardening plastic, but they will not get through wet newspapers.”
—So Much for Fish Wraps
A: Dear SMFW,
Some newspaper inks, especially in color pages, contain chemicals you don’t want to be putting on your garden. I have experimented with this technique, using layers of black and white newspaper, and found that the paper quickly disintegrates in the wet ground. Using newspapers as a weed barrier might work for one season if you lay it on thick enough, but it won’t last much longer. As far as newspapers being a tougher barrier than plastic weed mat, I think that’s bunk.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org