You don’t have to be a hardcore forager to take advantage of the wild greens that abound in this lovely spring season. Trust me–we are not traipsing about far off-trail, toting a GPS. But we do enjoy gracing the table with simple wild edibles that we glean close to home. My two spring favorites: miner’s lettuce and nettles.
Miner’s lettuce was named for the gold miners of the 1850s, who wisely ate it. It’s an annual in the purslane family, and grows in various places around the country. In Seattle, we have five different varieties, the most common being Siberian miner’s lettuce. There are two things I love about miner’s lettuce. One is its habit of growing in moist, lush places–”fairyish” places, as Claire likes to say. Whenever you are gathering miner’s lettuce, you are somewhere pretty. The other thing I love is that it’s perfectly delicious. Sweet, juicy, succulent, tastes a lot like a cucumber with an edge of wild complexity–a sort of nuttiness. My favorite way to eat it is in nibbles along the trail, but it’s always nice to bring some home and toss it in a salad–either on its own, or mixed with garden greens. The sweetness balances nicely with peppery arugula. Some people cook it, but I never do. For optimal flavor, gather the leaves when they are small, and before the plants flower.
Nettles, which grow well in disturbed areas, are an urban forager’s staple. Recently, they have become perceived as a weed to avoid, what with their habit of stinging us with their formic acid-laden prickles. But historically they have been used for food, medicine, and fiber. The stems can be combed apart, and spun like flax–I am hoping to learn to do that this year.
When wilted, the stinging properties are rendered harmless, but be sure to wilt them completely–when lightly steamed, our tongues can still detect the possibility of stinging, and become worried. No one wants to worry while they eat. That said, you can eat the leaves raw, and they are quite tasty. Roll the edges of the leaves inward, top-side out, making a little nettle-leaf burrito. Place it between your back teeth so it won’t unroll. Claire loves to do this as a party trick, but she always makes me do the rolling–I should get Mama Danger Pay, but I love that she’s game for it. Nettles are perfectly delicious–use them the way you would use any other wilted green: braised with a bit of lemon dressing, over farro with some crumbled bleu cheese and toasted walnuts (yum), on pizza with goat cheese and foraged mushrooms, in soups, quiche, frittata…Nettles are best gathered when young, and there are still lots of smaller plants out there–bright green, and under a foot high. They can also be steamed and frozen for winter cooking. Make sure that you wear gloves and long sleeves when gathering and preparing!
My daughter is salad averse. She will eat spinach cooked into a quiche or something, but prefers not to. Still, she loves both purslane and nettles. Part of it might be the fun of gathering these things, but she seems to really prefer the flavors. In all foraging, there is this wonderful element of wildness, of something more complicated and interesting and delightful and nourishing than everyday domesticated fare. When we walk in wilder places, we nibble whatever we can along the way. Not just the delicious stuff–huckleberries, salmonberries, thimble berries, miner’s lettuce. But also the not-so-yummy but still-edible: snow berries, Indian plum, just for the reminder that these foods are available if needed. I want my daughter to feel always at-home, sustained, and nourished by wild places.
And tonight, a simple spring meal: nettle fritatta, local asparagus, and a salad of mixed greens with miner’s lettuce. Delish.
Here’s a nice little frittata recipe, but fritattas are a highly malleable form. Improvise freely.
Tangled Nest Nettle Frittata
Wash about half a pound of nettles, with their stems removed. Shake them gently, but leave some water on the leaves, stuff them into a skillet, cover, and steam over medium heat until wilted. Turn the wilted spinach into a strainer, and press out any liquid with the back of a wooden spoon. Set aside to cool.
In the same skillet, heat a little olive oil over medium heat, and fry one or two thinly sliced boiling potatoes. Make sure you cook it until golden brown and tender, otherwise your frittata will be too crunchy. Stir in a finely sliced shallot (or scallion), and cook another minute or two. Turn onto a plate to cool.
Beat four eggs in a bowl. Stir in about 1/2 cup feta cheese (or smoked gouda, or whatever sounds good), a pinch of salt, freshly ground pepper to taste, potatoes, and nettles.
Wipe the skillet clean, then melt a teaspoon of butter over medium heat and swirl it around to coat the sides. Pour the egg mixture into the prepared skillet, and let it cook until the edges begin to set. Meanwhile, heat the broiler. As the frittata continues to cook, occasionally loosen the sides with a rubber spatula, and tilt the pan so the uncooked liquid from the center moves to the sides. Continue until the frittata is about 80% cooked, 15 minutes or so, then pop it under the broiler until the top is set, and turning golden. So pretty! Let it cool a bit before serving. Enjoy.