Monday, May 9, 2011

Meatless Monday: Stepping Out on the Wild Side

Happy Monday everyone. 

The Wooster Square Farmers Market opened for the season on Saturday, and Google was there, driving many a sale.

“What’s in the bag?” I asked the students staffing the Yale Sustainable Food Project  booth. “Nettles,” they replied. “Nettles? What do you do with them?” I asked. “Some people make them into tea. You can use them in soup. Google nettles and you’ll  find lots of recipes. Just be sure to cook them first.” The nettle leaves had an intense dark green color and certainly looked very fresh. I was told they’d been selling very well that morning, and they were only $3 a bag. I’d gone to the market in search of a culinary adventure and gladly handed over exact change.

Dirty, reeking ramps
I moved on to a similar experience with a farmer selling ramps, which I knew to be a very coveted item on Top Chef. They didn’t look like much — small bulbs, purple stems, many roots (holding lots of dirt), floppy leaves. The price? Sold by the small bunch, it came out to about 50¢ a bulb. “How would I cook them?” “Just google, you’ll find lots of recipes.”  

As I was handing over my money, and the farmer was handing over my purchase, I discovered that ramps reek, really. I gladly accepted the plastic bag the farmer offered (and tied it in a knot as I left the booth). I also learned that the farmer had not cultivated the ramps: they grew wild on his property and only recently had become desirable enough for the farmer to harvest and bring them to market. 

Somewhere in rural America they are laughing — twice over! When I got home and showed my farm-raised husband the nettles I had bought for only $3, he responded, “I’m pretty sure those are the weeds we dug out of the pasture, and I don’t think we ever ate them.” Between the ramps and the nettles I had handed over $8 for some very local weeds. How very sustainable of me!

Back to the nettles. I was lucky enough to leave them in the bag until I’d done my googling. The Yalies had neglected to tell me I would need protective hand-gear to prepare them for cooking. Nettles Urtica dioica are a common weed throughout North America (except apparently in Arkansas) whose scientific name comes from the Latin word uro, which means “I burn.” Also called “stinging nettles,” the plant’s stems and leaves are covered with tiny, needle-like hairs that will give anyone who touches or brushes against them unprotected a nasty and very itchy rash. 

Cooking renders these compounds harmless. Nettles can be cooked and eaten, dried for tea, or brewed into beer! The plant is rich in minerals, and has for years been uses as a tonic and, in dried form, for treating wounds. Naturalist Steve Brill believes that eating nettles or drinking their tea makes your hair brighter, thicker and shinier. Medical researchers are exploring the use of nettle root, nettle leaves, and nettle spines for treating a long list of ailments.

Walking on the Wild Side Spring Nettle Soup
I chose soup for my experiment and googled a few of promising recipes. Step one was always the same for both — wear a pair of gloves while removing the stems from the leaves. Inspired by Molly Watson’s “Stinging Nettles Soup” and “Blue Ridge Restaurant’s Stinging Nettle Soup” to come up with this one of my own.

Walking on the Wild Side Spring Nettle Soup

1/4 pound fresh nettle leaves 
[NOTE: Use gloves while removing stems from leaves.]
1 tbsp butter
1 onion diced
3 shallots diced
1 lb. organic russet potatoes, peeled and diced
6 cups vegetable stock [I used all natural vegetable bouillon cubes]
Juice of two lemons
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
freshly ground black pepper
2 % Greek yogurt for garnish

Melt the butter in a soup pot over low heat. 
Add the onions and shallots and stir until transparent.
Add the stock and potatoes. Turn up heat to medium high. 
Bring to a boil and then lower heat to simmer until potatoes are tender.
Add the nettle leaves and cook gently for 7 minutes. 
Add lemon juice and seasonings.
Remove from heat.
Purée in the pot with an immersion blender.
Serve hot with a dollop of Greek yogurt.

Aside from preparing the nettles, the soup couldn’t be easier to make. The smell was wonderful. The taste delicious. The color so Springy! The only thing I might do is add another large potato or two to make it just a bit thicker. Go ahead, walk on the wild side.

Have a great week. Come back next Monday to find out what I did with the ramps.

I try to blog on food or food issues each Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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