This month, we're extending our foodshed from the hospitable, domesticated areas of home gardens, where we pick luscious fruits that want to be eaten and vegetables that are carefully grown from selected seed. Together, we will venture into foraging a couple of extreme members of the plant world.
Nettles are one of the more magical plants that are found in our area. Like a torture out of The Hunger Games, nettle, if you've never encountered it, is a plant that can sting like a bee. Cooking eliminates the special effects, and transforms nettles into one of the tastiest and most umami leafy vegetables—you can make a broth out of the spiky green leaves that is delicious enough to drink as tea. Plus nettle has got more protein than almost any other leafy green (7% by weight) and impressive amounts of minerals.
Stinging nettles resemble catnip and mint, but there's no relation. Don a pair of gloves and look closely and you'll see that the stems and backs of the leaves are covered with tiny whitish hairs. The hairs are actually hollow needles filled with formic acid—the same substance that gives bee and ant stings their potency. There are other chemicals there that add to the ouch: histamine, acetylcholine and even a little serotonin (isn't that supposed to make you feel good?).
You'll need to wear protection (latex gloves or even plastic bags work) all the while you're picking and preparing nettles. Collect lots of the tender-stemmed top leaves (you can do this throughout the season, until the nettles bloom). Once in the kitchen, strip the leaves from the stems. Now you can use the nettles in any cooked dish in which you'd use greens—especially tender greens like spinach, sorrel, watercress. Nettles added in the last five or ten minutes to soups, are great too, providing a green richness that is especially nice in the spring.
ramp it up!
Our second extreme vegetable is called the ramp—it's most often describes as a wild leek, although that doesn't do it justice. Ramps are beautiful, small vegetables with a wide, flat leaf, and often a pink band at the stem. If the ramp itself is demure-looking, the flavor and aroma of the ramps is off-the-charts oniony-garlicky—so strong that if you transport them by car you'll be reminded of it for several days. Recently, after relishing a home-cooked meal made with generous amounts of the first ramps of the season, my friend and I headed over to a nearby restaurant for dessert to top it off. As we sipped a glass of wine and waited for a seat at the bar, the friendly soul next to me swiveled their head around and said, “Where's that lovely garlic smell coming from?” We're lucky they liked it (or were polite enough to pretend they did).
You can find ramps in well-drained, well-watered soil in late April through May. There's only one other plant like them, a rare narrow-leafed variety of ramp that shouldn't be gathered because of its scarcity (I've never found them, myself). When you find a patch of ramps, don't take more than a few of them so that the colony will sustain year after year. Depending on how deep the bulbs are, you might find it easier to harvest with a trowel. The entire ramp is delicious, from bulb to tender leaf.
Ramps can be used in any recipe that features onions, leeks, scallions, garlic. They're great in soup, risotto, pasta, or sauteed as an omelet filling or bruschetta topping. A Japanese friend made a delicious condiment by braising chopped ramps with sake, soy sauce, mirin with a little shiro miso as a finish. You can even slather them with olive oil and salt and grill them.
I ran into one more non-edible extreme member of the plant world during my foraging—poison ivy! Still so tiny I didn't even notice it, and it turns out it's even stronger in the spring. Out of practice, I forgot to wash three times with soap after I got home (if you can remove the irritating oils within a short time they won't create a rash). So I got a mild case of icky and itchy red bumps on my hands and arms—again reminding me of the tribulations of the Hunger Games contestants. Luckily, a few years ago on the internet I found an amazingly simple treatment for the itching: hot water. It releases the histamines that cause the itch—you can actually feel it happen. Just bath the affected area in the hottest water you can stand until the itching subsides. You'll get at least eight hours of relief until the histamines build up again and you repeat the process. It's a great alternative to cortisone creams, and actually works better.
Before you eat any wild plant, you want to be sure you've got the right species. There's plenty of information online and lots of great books, including Dina Falconi's Foraging and Feasting