Saturday, 26 March 2011

Hermitcraft: Nettles

Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica.
(Adapted from The Neighborhood Forager, by Robert K. Henderson. Copyright 1999 Chelsea Green Publishers, White River VT. Available in bookstores; signed copies available from the author [me] for $24.95 plus shipping.)

The Eatin' O' The Greens is hard upon us, so to kick off the bacchanalia, I propose a pæan to that prince of the pot: Urtica (stinging nettle).

Mediæval monastics, greatest scholars of their time, lived on nettle broth, tea, beer, and greens. Nettle root soup was virtually the only dish served in the severest orders. They also wore habits of nettle fibres, sowed it in fallow ground as green manure, boiled the whole plant for fertiliser and organic pesticide, and whipped their backs with bundles of fresh nettles to strengthen their spiritual discipline. Today, banks of nettle veil monastery ruins all over Europe, an ever-faithful servant shielding the bones of the once-great monastic system from the mocking view of the profane.

On the other side of the planet, the North Pacific tribes slurped steamed nettle shoots and nettle root soup while building their own highly-advanced culture. They used fibres from pounded nettle stems to spin cordage that made industrial-scale salmon fishery a reality, which in turn formed the basis of the entire coastal economy. The Harpooneer, central figure of the whale hunt and an important religious figure, plunged his hand into a bag of nettles to prevent his thoughts wandering as he searched the misty ocean.

But it's nettle’s food value that makes it central to my own practice. Few vegetables, wild or domestic, approach it. Protein-wise, nettle outperforms beans. It also packs a significant wallop of iron, fibre, vitamins A and C, calcium, magnesium and a long list of others. And it seems the monk-physicians of old were right to put their patients on nettle broth, since in addition to being sustaining and easily-digested, it's also hypoallergenic.

When in doubt, simply pet the plant
you're looking at. If the experience
is unremarkable, it ain't this.
Nettle shoots start coming on about this time of year in the northern hemisphere, generally in moist, rich soil with partial shade. A single square stem bears heart-shaped, deeply toothed leaves, so that the plant closely resembles a big, hairy mint, to which it is a close relative. The "hair" is actually a million tiny, needle sharp spines that sting like the dickens when touched. (They lose this power with thorough steaming.)

Food also has to taste good to get on my menu, and nettle brings plenty of that kind of "food value" to the table as well. The greens have a complex bouquet, mingling faint mint overtones with a hint of the seashore. Boiled shoots are a good bed for steamed or baked salmon, and fresh ones can form a bed for steaming clams, then be eaten as a side dish. I call the blue-green water left over from steaming “nettle nectar,” because it tastes something like clam nectar. It can be mixed with tomato juice, eggs can be poached in it, or you can just drink it hot. To make delicious, nutritious broth, boil shoots until soft with onions and garlic, run through a blender, and strain. In its day, this concoction enjoyed as much prestige as chicken soup for healing the sick.

Wild greens generally excel supermarket produce in savour and sustenance, and nettles are among the best of the already best. And they're only available now, for a few weeks. So go eat some.

But don't make a salad from them.

Bad idea.

Cereal box prize:
An uplifting teisho from one of the great Zen masters of our time.

"Anything is possible when you smell like a monster and know the word 'on.'"

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