The menu read: Buckwheat cavatelli, nettles, walnuts and cream. Hmmm. I love pasta. Nettles? Must be some exotic green. I wasn’t sure. I ordered the pasta dish as my entree at Clyde Common restaurant in Portland, Oregon. The dish was absolutely wonderful with their house-made buckwheat pasta tossed up with toasted chunks of walnuts and chopped bits of nettles, all adorned with a light cream sauce.
When I came home and started talking about the dish with my neighbors and friends, the reactions I got were all very similar. First, disbelief. "Not stinging nettles. You weren’t eating stinging nettles, were you?" I wasnt sure.
Some people said they do everything they can to get rid of the weed that grows on their property. Because, as my neighbor explains, "When I was growing up, we called stinging nettle fire weed. If it brushed against your skin, you would feel a burning sensation for a long time. We stayed away from it." She could not believe people would actually eat the green weed. She walked me out to a small patch of nettle growing not far from her compost pile.
It was then I realized I had been eating the leaves of a weed at the Portland restaurant that quckly became one of my favorite dining spots when I was in that city last month for a conference.
I asked Molly Miron, the editor of the Bemidji Pioneer, about stinging nettle. I was pretty sure she had it growing on her farm. She was adamant when she said she does everything she can to get rid of the stuff. She hadn’t sprayed it yet with weed killer, so she very reluctantly said she’d bring me some stinging nettle. She just wasn’t sure I should be eating it, though.
I called Clyde Common last week to see if the chef would tell me how to make the pasta with nettles in my own kitchen. I learned it’s a dish you can make with just a few ingredients. I was instructed to infuse some cream with garlic and thyme. Blanch some nettle leaves. Mix cooked pasta with the garlic-infused cream, chopped nettles and toasted walnuts.
So that’s what I did with the nettles Molly brought for me. I must say, the dish was exquisite. I took some over to my next-door neighbor who avoided stinging nettle as a child. She and her husband were a bit leery, but they ate it. And they loved it. They’ve decided to keep the patch of nettle growing near their compost pile. They are ready to start experimenting in the kitchen with stinging nettle.
I’ve been doing some research on nettle. It seems this wildflower/weed is super nutritious. Stinging nettle is chock full of vitamins A & C, and rich in calcium and iron. Some find that steeping nettle leaves in hot water makes a cleansing tea that also seems to relieve allergy symptoms, particularly hay fever. Stinging nettle seems to be a smart choice to work into your seasonal meals.
There are some things to keep in mind when you are picking and preparing your nettle harvest.
- Be sure to wear garden gloves to avoid the stinging hairs on the underside of the leaves.
- Nettles must be harvested in the spring before they flower. Once flowers form, harmful crystals develop within the leaves that can irritate the urinary tract.
- Never forage for nettles from roadsides where they have been exposed to exhaust from traffic, or from public trails or private land where they may have been sprayed with chemicals.
- Cooking or drying nettles removes their sting. Once cooked, nettles can be used just as any other cooked green such as spinach, kale and chard. I’ve only used the blanching method to prepare nettles for my pasta dish. Bring a pot of water to a boil, drop in the nettle leaves and blanch for 1 minute. Remove with a strainer, drain and squeeze dry in a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. They’re ready to go.
Spring has always been about rhubarb for me. Now I’ve added nettle to my list of "These are a few of my favorite spring things." You may live in an area where nettles can be found at the farmers market. My local farmers market doesn’t even get started until June sometime and I’ve never seen anyone selling nettle. But just think of how much fun it would be to forage for your own tender nettles to turn into soup or stir into pasta.
That’s what I did today. A friend and I met this afternoon to treat ourselves to pedicures. She’d been talking to her husband about my nettle obsession. He knew just where we could find some. My dear friend had come to our pedi date prepared to take me to "the spot" to forage for stinging nettle. She had packed garden gloves, a plastic bag to hold the tender nettles and of course, the map her husband had drawn for us. And so, with our pretty little toes, we tiptoed through the tall grass and came out with some nettle. And not one burning toe.
Now, it’s time to get cooking and start eating green with nettles in the pasta bowl.
Whole Wheat Penne with Nettles, Walnuts and Cream
Pour 1 1/2 cups of half-and-half into a heavy saucepan. Add a sprig or two of fresh thyme and some garlic. I had some roasted garlic in my refrigerator, so I squeezed a few cloves of the roasted bulb into the cream. Simmer the cream while blanching the nettle leaves in a large pot of boiling water. Use a fine sieve to remove nettles from the boiling pot of water. Cook 1 1/3 cups whole wheat penne in the same water. When pasta is al dente, drain and dump into a pasta bowl. Squeeze nettle dry with a towel. Chop the nettle.
In a pasta bowl, toss the cooked and drained pasta with chopped blanched nettle leaves. Pull the thyme sprigs out of the cream and pour the cream into the pasta bowl. Mix it all up. Sprinkle with toasted walnuts. Grate some parmesan cheese over the pasta, if desired. And a couple of twists of the pepper mill. Makes 2 servings.