Edible Monterey Bay

WHAT’S IN SEASON SPRING 2013

MARCH, APRIL, MAY

Fruits: Apricots* • Avocados • Blackberries* • Cactus Pears* Grapefruit** • Kumquats** • Lemons • Limes** Mandarins** • Oranges • Pomelos** • Rhubarb** • Strawberries

Vegetables: Artichokes • Arugula • Asparagus • Beets• Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac*** • Celery*** • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion Endive • Fava Beans and Greens • Fennel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas** • Pea Shoots • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas** • Shallots • Spinach Sprouts • Squash • Sunchokes • Turnips
* May only ** March and April only ***April and May only

Fish: Abalone (farmed) • California Halibut (hook-and-line) • Dungeness Crab • Lingcod • Market Squid • Pacific Sanddabs • Rock Cod/Snapper/Rockfish (hook-and-line, jig) • Sablefish/Black Cod (hook-and-line, jig) • Sole (Dover and Petrale) • Spot Prawns • White Seabass (hook-and-line)


 

Stinging Nettles

Cultivated by Central Coast farmers and coveted by hip young chefs, an often reviled weed is also healthful and delicious

By Jamie Collins

stingingnettles

Stinging nettles are often first discovered when toiling in a well-watered garden or hiking through a damp and weedy area. First, there’s the prickly pain, after a bare arm or leg brushes against the plant; then there’s an itchy rash. It’s a wonder anyone thought of eating them. But when food was scarce, Native Americans turned to weeds for sustenance and discovered that nettles, botanically known as Urtica dioica, are deeply flavorful, highly nutritious and even medicinal. Nettles are high in protein (a remarkable 25%) as well as folic acid and the B vitamins that make one feel good. They taste similar to spinach—but are richer, nuttier and almost meaty—and they lack the astringent taste of spinach’s oxalic acid. Nettles grow wherever and whenever water is abundant, which is mainly winter and spring here on Monterey Bay.

Watch your touch!

Just touching the sharp, hollow hairs that cover nettle stems and leaves will cause the burn that nettles are named for. It’s not the prick of the hair that causes the pain, though. It’s the chemical cocktail that the hairs inject into the skin.

The irritation caused by nettles actually has its uses. Nettles can be applied to the joints of people who suffer from arthritis to in- crease healing blood flow and immune responses in the area. And to warm themselves and adapt to the cold, damp English climate, Roman soldiers flogged themselves with nettles.

But luckily for the rest of us, the nettle’s weapons can be neutralized quickly and easily if they are cooked, thrown in the blender, soaked in water or dried. As a result, adventurous chefs and home cooks are finding nettles’ deep, hearty flavor well worth the effort.

At my farmers’ market tables, I find some customers will inevitably bring the plant to their nose to smell it, hoping for a familiar scent that will clue them in on what this curious, jagged-leafed green is. Before I can stop them they have enthusiastically shoved the nettles into their olfactory center with abandon. Although the customers are always shocked at the sting they inflict on themselves, they almost always laugh it off. So far no one has threatened to sue, but just in case, if you’re a farmer and you plan to market nettles, it’s a good idea to provide tongs and good signage indicating that the nettles will sting. If you’re buying nettles, put gloves or a bag be- tween you and the nettles until you’ve gotten them home and de- fanged them.

Chef Brad Briske of La Balena in Carmel pulls the sleeve of his sweatshirt over his hand when making a stop for the wild nettles that he picks by the side of the road to cook at his home in Santa Cruz. And once home or in the restaurant, cooking the tender cultivated varieties that he purchases from local farms, he uses tongs to handle them until they are cooked.

Yes, you can cook them

stingingnettlessoupBriske’s technique for taking the sting out of the plant is to blanch them for about half a minute in boiling water and then shock them with a plunge into ice water. He then strains the nettles from the ice water, and uses both the shocked nettles and the dark green juice that drips from them in dishes like nettle soup and nettle pasta. (See accompanying recipes.)

Nettles can be used like any hearty winter or spring greens, such as kale, and lend themselves well to steaming, after which I like to add sautéed shallots or garlic in butter or ghee. Finish by shaving Parmesan over the nettle greens and lightly seasoning them with salt and pepper.

Boiling nettles in water can have a dual purpose. Nettle tea is tasty and full of vitamins and nutrients. Add some lemon and honey and you have a great hot or iced tea. Use the remainder of the water as a soup stock, straining and chopping the nettles coarsely before adding back to the broth. Sauté chopped sweet yellow onions and add to a soup pot along with cubed potatoes and chicken or vegetable stock to taste. Season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg. Finish with crème fraîche, sour cream or Greek yogurt.

When basil is out of season, nettles can be made into a pesto, as blending the raw nettles removes the stingers. Other culinary uses for nettles: as a lasagna component or atop creamy polenta. They pair especially well with wild mushrooms, Briske says.

But whatever you do with the nettles, Briske recommends avoiding overpowering them.

“Simply put, nettles should be enjoyed as nettles,” Briske says in the accompanying nettle soup recipe on p. 22. “You want to avoid hiding or taking away from its pure beauty and flavor.”

Grow your own

Nettles are easy to raise, have many benefits to a garden or farm and will even draw several species of butterflies and some ultra-cool moths.

On my farm, nettles appear between the rows of vegetables as a weed in winter, and we save and replant their seeds for spring and summer crops. We sell both the wild and cultivated nettles at farmers’ markets.

Nettles have an uncanny ability to reproduce, so all one needs to do to grow them is find a mature wild plant that has formed obvious seeds and shake them in a location where nettles will be welcome. Be sure to cover your seeds well or the wind will spread them to a less desirable area. I learned this the hard way, finding my nettle seed had migrated to the horse pasture, creating an obstacle course for the horses until I got around to tilling it under. (And if this hap- pens to you, just be sure to remove or till them under before new seeds set and produce more unwanted weeds!)

Nettles favor soil high in nitrogen and phosphates, which is why the plant grows so well in farmers’ fields. Nettles also make a fantastic companion plant, strengthening the crops in close proximity by increasing their volatile oils as well as attracting beneficial insects if left to flower. Adding nettles to the compost heap helps the pile break down faster and when it does, nettles provide important micronutrients such as sulfur, iron and magnesium for crops to absorb. Nettles can also be made into a potent biodynamic compost tea.

Even farm animals benefit from nettles. When fed the plant, chickens have been found to lay more eggs and lactating animals pro- duce more milk. And speaking of milk, nettles can be used to make an aged English cheese called Yarg. The nettles are wrapped around the cheese and meld with the outer mold as the cheese ages, resulting in a unique flavor reminiscent of mushrooms and nutty greens.

Suddenly, nettles everywhere

stingingnettletagiatelleNettles can be found on many hip local menus—as a pizza topping, ravioli filling and in soups, just to name a few dishes. Area restaurants that tend to serve nettles include Bantam and Ristorante Avanti in Santa Cruz, and, as aforementioned, La Balena in Carmel.

Nettles are most easily found growing wild at rainy times of the year when wild mushrooms are also sprouting. And if you want to purchase them, you’ll find them at the local farmers’ market tables of Four Sisters Farm, Happy Boy Farms and Route 1 Farms, just to name three. Santa Cruz Local Foods will also deliver them to you. (See their websites for more information.)

But whether foraging for wild nettles or buying them at the market, use gloves, tongs or something else other than your hands, or the nettles will have you cursing. Moral of the story: If you can’t beat the nettles in your field (or in my case, the fertile horse pasture), join ’em, eat ’em and rejoice in them.

Jamie Collins of Serendipity Farms has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley for 12 years. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.

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