Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Stalking the Wild Spaghetti

The topic today is wood nettles, but wood nettles, while somewhat dangerous in the midsummer woods, are not terribly active, at any time.  Hence the Euell Gibbons-esque title, to lend some drama to the proceedings.  In fact there's a good deal of drama in our northern woods now, though of a subtle sort.  There are scenes of absolute sylvan splendor to be relished, as ostrich ferns unfurl, almost perceptibly, and trilliums blaze in gaudy constellations across the forest forest, accented by purple phlox, Virginia bluebells, wild geraniums.  Sometimes the drama is more apparent, as when I spooked a knobby-kneed fawn, a perfect little silken, speckled Bambi, from its hiding place just a few feet away from me.  The doe was no doubt watching nearby, but didn't make a sound.  Baby deer clumsily found its feet, and clattered off into the underbrush.

I found patches of ramps in surprisingly good shape, and harvested a weighty sack full for fresh eating and pickling.  As I dug those ramps with my  hori-hori, bar none the perfect tool for the job, I was struck by the density of life on the forest floor.  Where a few weeks ago this bit of ground had been nearly a blank slate, only sparsely adorned with the first trout lilies and ramps knifing through the loam, now there was vegetation in a stunning variety of shapes, colors, and textures crowding every square inch of earth.  When the ramps were at their peak, you couldn't imagine that there was room for any other kind of plant to grow, but now they share that space with the ostrich, lady, and bracken ferns; with rue and anemones, bloodroot and trilliums; wild ginger, solomon's seal true and false, mayapple, skunk cabbage, swamp saxifrage, nettles stinging and wood; and a couple dozen other plants that I don't even know the names of.  How remarkably rich that soil must be, to support that density and diversity of flora, and each plant so finely adapted to its circumstance.

This is a beautiful time of year in the woods, indeed, and it must be cherished while it lasts, for, like the adorable and loving child who transforms, seemingly overnight, into a gangling, pimpled, sneering teen, the spring woods come summer are an inhospitable place, the nettles eye-high, flowers all fallen and rotted, every sort of vicious insect out to suck your blood.  Now, it's nice.  You should make time for a walk.

On that walk you will find plenty of wild food, and one of my springtime favorites, the aforementioned wood nettle, laportea canadensis, is both abundant and prime for the picking.  Right now you'll find fresh new shoots as well as plants that have reached knee-high.  Both can be used; with the new sproutlets, you pinch them off just above the soil.  With the larger plants I reach down the
stem six or eight inches from the top and remove stem and upper leaves where stem breaks easily.  The smallest plants haven't really developed their stinging quality yet, and so present no threat to the forager.  Those knee-high specimens, though, can make their presence felt if you brush wrist or forearm against the leaves, so use caution.

What's great about wood nettles, and what elevates them over stinging nettles, in my humble, is their versatility.  With wood nettles, both the leaves and tender stems are edible and delicious.  It's sort of as if asparagus had leaves.  Or think of it as wild broccoli rabe, only leafier.  It is excellent steamed or blanched, then simply tossed with oil or butter, and I really like it topped with ramp brown butter--melt some good butter, and as it starts to take on color, toss in a handful of chopped ramps, cook until insanely fragrant, add to nettles.  Again steamed or blanched, it makes a lovely green bed--dressed or not--for a roast chicken or a grilled steak, chop, or fish.  Really, it's an all-purpose green, like spinach with character, and a little prickle (but it doesn't make your teeth feel funny).

While some reference books describe stinging and wood nettles as preferring different habitats, I often find them growing literally side by side, both in shady forests and in sunny, open areas along the trout rivers I fish.   They clearly share a preference for rich, riparian soils, and given that environment, are indifferent to sun or shade.  This provides a good opportunity to harvest both kinds at once, and do some comparative taste testing of your own. (By the way, if I haven't mentioned them often enough, any serious and/or aspiring forager must have the books of  Sam Thayer and  Teresa Marrone; Sam has excellent back to back chapters on stinging and wood nettles in his first book, The Forager's Harvest, and Teresa's Abundantly Wild has both practical info and appetizing recipes.)

A lot of the wild green of spring are quite, how shall we say, elongated?  Attenuated, Modiglianish, if you will.  Wood nettles, ramps, and dandelion greens all share a generally longitudinal quality.  That got me thinking of them as something like wild spaghetti, so I cooked up a mess to toss with noodles, and I was pleased with the result.

See below the recipe for more wood nettle images.

Pasta with Wild Greens
Serves one as a main course, two as a first course or element of a multi-course meal

Handful dandelion greens
8 small to medium ramps with their greens
12 stems wood nettle tops, the top 6 to 8 inches of young plants
1 1/2 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
2 ounces dry pasta (I used capellini; thin Chinese egg noodles would work), cooked to your preference of doneness
a few shavings of parmesan, aged gouda, or another hard cheese
salt and pepper
coarse breadcrumbs toasted in a skillet with a bit of oil

If the dandelion greens are quite bitter, blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds, drain, refresh in cold water, and squeeze out excess water.  Heat a large heavy skillet and add the oil, then the ramps.  Leave the ramps to cook on one side until they start to get a bit charred, then turn them over to get some color on the other side.  When they are nicely brown--even a bit black in spots is okay--add the nettles and a good pinch of salt, and stir them about until they wilt down.  Add the dandelion greens and sauté vigorously until your kitchen is redolent of ramp aromas and a bit smoky--cook the greens hard, in other words.

Remove the pan from the heat.  Add the cooked, drained pasta to the skillet and toss to mix well.  Serve topped with the breadcrumbs, shaved, cheese, and a few grinds of black pepper.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw

Very young wood nettle tip.

Bide-A-Wee wood nettles.  Everything above ground is edible at this stage.

Whitewater wood nettles, late April; SE Minnesota is usually a couple weeks ahead of our northern Dunn County woods.

Obligatory showy trillium shot.

Wood nettles and ramps in the pan.


John @ Gastrofine said...

Never worked with nettles before, but need to get in on the rage. Do you know if they're available at any Twin Cities markets?


Sharon Parker said...

It all looks very lovely and delicious! And I appreciate the obligatory showy trillium photo. Sorry we didn't get to Mill City last Saturday. We'll keep trying, assuming you keep having book-signings. Cheers!

Trout Caviar said...

Hi John: I saw nettles listed among the produce available at Mill City last week, stinging nettles, I assume. I predict that, if I keep beating the drum, wood nettles will start showing up. They can be as prolific as stinging nettles, and as I've said, they make superior eating. But honestly, I sort of cringe-laugh at the idea of buying nettles--they grow nearly everywhere, and are very easy to ID. Stinging and wood nettles are some of the best wild greens for beginning foragers to gather. Get Sam's and Teresa's books, and hit the woods. And, you needn't go far: in the Cities, the Hidden Falls, Crosby Lake areas along the river are rife with both kinds of nettles. Have fun.

Hi Sharon: Yes, I couldn't resist the trillium shot, and indeed, why should I? They are gorgeous now. My next book event in the Cities is June 18 at the Southdale B & N, with Beth Dooley and Kim Ode. I'll send out a heads-up closer to the date. Hope to see you.

Best~ Brett

John @ Gastrofine said...

Great, thanks Brett!