I’ve written here quite a bit about growing, but less about the gathering side of things. That is about to change, though, especially as the spring season for one of my favorite forms of gathering — foraging wild edibles — is now in full swing! This morning I went to harvest the stinging nettle, which is growing in bunches in a lovely little canyon nearby, and came home with two paper bags full of the good stuff. Nettles are among the most nutritious plants around: they are rich in vitamins A and C, protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium. Once blanched to remove the sting, they can be used in virtually any recipe that calls for spinach. I actually really like the taste, and the culinary appreciation is accompanied by that certain giddiness I always feel whenever I get my vitamins from the forest, for free, rather than from the store aisle. Plus, the nettle and I have always had a special relationship, ever since I decided (at age 9) that “a professor” sounded like something I would like to be as a grown-up, and decided I would specialize in Nettle Studies.
Well, here I am… A professor and, even if not a biologist, it is not uncommon that I spend more or less an entire day with nettles — foraging, cooking, and eating them. Like today.
Here in Oregon, this is the prime season for nettles. They should be picked when they are still tender and young, because that’s when they are growing fast and are most potent in nutrients. In May, the nettles will have started flowering, which means that they are past their prime. For harvesting, all you need are scissors, bags, and gloves — and preferably long sleeves and pants or boots. Nettles grow in the shade and are easy to recognize if not by the sting, then by the stem, which is square like that of mint. Cut off just the top 4-5 inches of the young plants with scissors; the tops will grow back.
When you get home, separate the leaves from the stalks, and soak the leaves in warm water. Then transfer to a large pot with a slotted spoon, cover with water, and blanch for about 10 minutes. That’s when they are ready for any recipe, and the real fun begins… I brewed nettle tea, whirred up this tasty nettle pesto recipe in the food processor (although I like to sautée the garlic in olive oil first), and for dinner made a savory nettle feta quiche (recipe follows).
Nettle Feta Quiche
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt1 stick of butter, cold3 tbsp ice water
200-300 g of blanched spinach or nettle, coarsely chopped
1 small onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup milk
a handful of crumbled feta
1 tbsp oregano
salt and pepper to taste
To make the crust, sift together the flour and the salt, and then cut the butter into the flour mixture with your fingertips or in a food processor until it is uniformly crumbly. Sprinkle the ice water on top, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough holds together. Wrap in plastic and put in the fridge for a minimum of half an hour before shaping it into a disk and fitting into a 9-inch pie plate. Brush with an egg yolk.
Sautée the garlic and onion on a pan in butter, then add the nettles or spinach and continue to sautée until the onions have softened. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, the milk, the cream, and the spices. Lastly add the feta. Add the custard filling to the greens and onions and pour into the pie crust. Bake in 400 F for about 20-30 min, or until golden brown.