Flash in the Pan 

Love stings

The other day my girlfriend came home with a bag full of fresh stinging nettles from near the creek. I’m so proud of her. As a reward, I used the nettles to tie her up and spank her. Then we ate the nettles.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, first of all, the only nettles you’ll find this time of year are young shoots. If you’re hungry, that’s good, because young nettles are the best eating. But if you’re horny, then the springtime nettles don’t cut it. Can you imagine spanking someone with a 4-inch nettle shoot? Never happen. You want them at least waist-high, which they’ll be come late spring or summer. That’s also when the stalks make the best fiber, for tying. If you like a little snack after your love smack, you can eat the tips (at least until they flower) and you can always eat the leaves.

High in amino acids, chlorophyll, minerals and B-complex vitamins, Urtica dioica is considered helpful in treating many ailments, including allergies, joint pain, infections and high blood pressure. They taste wild and rich.

And people really do use them for the old spank or tickle, and they take it quite seriously. In fact, one of my best sources for scientific, historical, nutritional and other aspects of nettles was the nettle sado-botany page at www.mordor.u-net.com/smbd/nettles.html.

If you want to gather nettles, consult a good plant book like Plants of the Northern Rockies (Lone Pine) to make sure you ID them properly. Take scissors. If you plan to collect where dogs frolic, don’t forget to wash them.

Dogs, foragers and sado-botanists aren’t the only critters who frolic in the nettle patch. There is also my friend Bob Pyle. A writer and naturalist-in-residence in UM’s environmental studies program, Bob is a world-renowned lepidopterist, or butterfly expert. He is also, by his own admission, a non-sado botanist. Bob told me that the caterpillar incarnations of three of Missoula’s prettiest butterflies—the Satyr Angelwing, Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, and Red Admiral—eat nothing but nettles. I myself probably eat gallons of nettles a year. Makes me wonder how much extra protein I’m chomping.

Caterpillars eat nettles raw, but preparing them for human consumption is almost as easy. Steam or boil them long enough to collapse the plant, and the stingers wilt. Stir-fried with garlic and soy is a good, simple option.

But I wanted to take it to the next level. So I called Chef Jeff Miller of Papoose Creek Lodge in Montana’s upper Madison River Valley, hoping to score his famous nettle ravioli recipe. He was really nice but didn’t give me the recipe—because he doesn’t have one. Instead, he offered the ingredients, rough proportions and some good insight.

“When building flavor,” he said, “it’s like a chorus. You want every voice to be heard.”

I interpreted his advice as follows:

For the filling, blanch the nettles a handful at a time in boiling salted water, then plunge them into an ice bath. This process, known as “shocking,” stops the cooking immediately and fixes a bright green color. Squeeze 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. I also tried replacing up to half of the nettles with wild rice for an earthy, nutty flavor.

For the dough, Miller recommends 1 egg per cup of all-purpose flour. I recommend the instructions in Joy of Cooking. I also recommend the Good Food Store’s ready-made ravioli sheets.

On a pasta 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 sheet. Starting at one end, firmly press along the wet lines, squeezing out the air and bonding the pasta all around. Cut apart the raviolis with a butter knife or pasta cutter. Drop them in a big pot of boiling, salted, olive-oiled water for about 2 minutes, or until they float. If making sauce #3 (below) set aside 1/2 cup pasta water.

I strained the ravioli, tossed them in olive oil with a little pressed garlic and experimented with the following sauces.

First, a morel sherry cream sauce that was beyond fabulous, and through which, unfortunately, the voice of the nettles could hardly be heard.

Then I fried the dressed ravioli in hot bacon grease, serving them crispy with chopped bacon and a splash of aged balsamic vinegar. So good I almost passed out.

Finally, I interpreted Jeff’s recommended butter/lemon/walnut 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 walnuts.

The chorus of flavors tenderly titillated my taste buds, and I felt no particular need for spanking. With flavor like this I might just make like a Satyr Angelwing caterpillar and never leave the nettle patch.


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