Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Weeds Worth the Pain

I'm bringing the blog out of hibernation to write in praise of one of my favorite wild greens, wood nettles, laportea canadensis.  I've probably had something to say about this under-appreciated cousin of the better known stinging nettle pretty much every spring.  My favorite time to harvest it is just after it has emerged, at 8 to 10 inches high, say, when it has little sting and you can consume the whole plant, adding it to a soup of wild greens or tossing it with pasta.  Wood nettles are usually up by the second week of May, and can be found in that infant state through the end of the month, depending upon your latitude.

I managed to gather a few harvests of baby wood nettles this year, but for most of May torrential rains and various obligations kept me out of the woods.  By the time I got back to check my wood nettle patches, most of the plants were up at least 18 inches, with their broad, delicate leaves fanning out widely, and their potent sting in full force.  I've said it before, but it bears repeating:  even though there's no sting in the name of wood nettles, there's a wicked one in the plant, worse than stinging nettles, in my opinion.  Maybe I've just had more bad experiences with them, as they tend to grow thick and tall near trout streams, and there's also an abundant patch of them guarding my favorite chanterelle patch.  They can sting you fiercely even through your jeans.  Beware!

Those little hairs deliver a potent sting in mature wood nettles.

But even though the wood nettles are getting tall now, they still provide excellent eating, which you can't really say for stinging nettles of the same size.  Before the plants flower and reach full height, which can be four to five feet, the leaves are still tender enough to make a versatile cooking green, and there's an added bonus product, what I've been calling "haricots verts du bois," the slender green beans of the woods:  it's the upper stems of wood nettles plants, which, when blanched and peeled, make a delightfully mild and crunchy vegetable.

Peeled (mostly) stems.
 In fact, you can eat the peeled stems raw, too, but a quick blanching in boiling water removes the sting and makes them very easy to handle.  I don't bother with gloves when picking the nettle tops, but long sleeves are probably a good idea, at least until you get the knack for picking them.  Wood nettle leaves grow in rather widely spaced tiers along the stem, which allows you to reach in, carefully, and grasp the stem about a foot down from the top.  Don't I get stung?  Am I possessed of digits of steel?  Yes I do, and no, I'm not.  I do feel a bit of sting on my fingertips, but the fingertips, at least mine, are not all that sensitive to wood nettles's sting.  So I take hold of the stem and bring my fingers up until I feel where the stem breaks easily.  As with asparagus, this is how I know that the stem is tender.

I bend it over to snap it, and as I pull it away the skin usually peels off from one side--that's how easily they peel.  When the leaves are big, stuffing them into my sack without getting stung is the most perilous operation.  So, yes, there's usually some pain involved, but it doesn't last long, and for me, the reward is more than worth it.

Once I get my prickly salad home, I dump the sack into a big bowl and wash it thoroughly--use tongs to agitate, but be gentle if you want to keep the stem sections intact, for they are delicate and break easily.  By this time, having been jumbled around in your sack and swished in water, a lot of the stinging capacity is gone, and then a dunk in boiling water does away with the rest.  The liquid you blanch the nettles in makes a tasty tea, similar to stinging nettles tea, perhaps a bit milder.  I add a little maple or, in this case, birch syrup to sweeten it a tad.

You'll notice that you can still see some of the little hairs on the unpeeled stem sections, even after blanching.  There's no sting there anymore, as I've said, but you may taste a little prickle on the tongue as you eat them. This may be an acquired taste; myself, I don't mind it.

The blanched wood nettle leaves can be used anywhere you'd use spinach, or young turnip or mustard greens.  To me, the flavor is much superior to spinach, and it doesn't make your teeth feel funny....  With the stems, pretend that they are wild haricots verts, or chop them into anything to which you want to add some crunch, from tuna salad to salsa to deviled eggs.

Or to soup, such as a bowl of ramen, which is a common lunch at this forager's house.  And when I say ramen, I'm talking the packaged kind with dry noodles and little flavoring packets.  But not the 29-cent kind.  No, with my dorm-room dining days well behind me, I now splurge for the 99-cent to $1.39 per package ramen.  Some of these deluxe instant lunches come with three count 'em three different little flavor packets--the powdered stuff, maybe some kind of oily or bean paste stuff, and one with bits of dehydrated vegetables.  Livin' large!

To fancy up my ramen just a bit, I sauté some kind of onion (or leek, ramp, shallot) in a bit of oil, add a good teaspoon of sambal, or better, our homemade chile-garlic paste, then add water, and the noodles.  I'll usually add about half the packet of powdered soup base (can't imagine how salty it would be if you used the whole thing, because it's pretty salty with half).  A minute or two before the noodles are done I toss in some greens, today, of course, wood nettles.  And today I also had some veiled oyster mushrooms that I found in our woods on my nettle-gathering walk yesterday.  These are a lesser oyster, for though they can get fairly large, the meat of the cap is thin, and they're pretty chewy.  Good flavor there, though, and a good textural addition.  A few slices of radish and spring onion, maybe a few drops of sesame oil and/or a dusting of hua jiao, because it's all about the garnish!  Slurp on.

Working in the outdoor forager's lab is very pleasant duty this time of year.  Forager's assistant Lily keeping half an eye on things.