Steven and I were helping Tim in the greenhouse two weeks ago when I learned about nettles. We were dropping tiny seeds into blocks of soil set in flat wooden boxes, Steven placing each by hand and I, wary of my clumsy fingers, shaking them out one-by-one from an index card folded in half. Once a flat was filled we covered it with more soil and watered it. Tim then loaded them all onto a garden cart and wheeled them up to the germination chamber, a dark, warm closet in the mudroom of the farmhouse set next to the washing machine and freezer full of beef tongue and pig heart.
As Tim brought the last load up to the house, Steven and I sat on the dirt outside. The grass was sparse yet and the ground still felt cool to the touch – not like in summer months, when just placing your toes on the earth feels hot and good – but there were signs of new life and growth everywhere. I looked out to the pasture where a new beef calf had been born recently and smiled.
“Nettles are coming up,” Steven said, pointing to a tuft of gracefully curved green leaves.
I considered them, taking note of the short, almost-invisible hairs that covered the stem and top of each leaf. I had heard of nettles; of that I was positive. But I couldn’t quite remember where or when or what they were.
“Do you know how to harvest them?” he asked, rolling a piece of soil between his thumb and forefinger.
I pulled my mouth down into a frown and shook my head, yanking a piece of grass from the ground and pulling it taut between my hands.
“The hairs are prickly, and they’ll sting if you touch them,” he said, reaching for the patch. “So do it like this.” He placed his fingers underneath the leaves, away from the stem, and pinched. The hairs folded into themselves and Steven pulled gently away from the plant. The leaf detached.
“You can eat it by keeping it closed it like this. It’s when your tongue touches the hairs that you’ll get stung,” he said. “But if you cook them, they lose their sting and you can use them like you would any other green.” He shrugged, having come to the end of his sentence but not his knowledge.
I grinned and wrapped my arms around his shoulders. “Thank you for teaching me,” I said with a warmth meant to relay how deliriously happy I was to be learning, to be in the sun, to be at the farm.
Later that night I walked with Tim as he did the evening’s chores.
He turned off the fence’s electric charge and we stepped into the laying hens’ pasture. “Steven taught me about nettles today,” I said as he pulled hard on a rope that brought the wooden drawbridge door to a close, tucking the hens safely inside their mobile coop. I watched his arms tense and tighten as the door grew heavy. “How to harvest them.”
“Oh?” Tim said. “That’s great. How did he tell you to?”
“Like this.” I held my thumb and middle finger right in front of my nose and squeezed them together slowly, mimicking the act of folding the nettle in half.
Tim laughed and adjusted his bag over his shoulder. “I guess that is one way to do it.”
I crossed my arms over my ribs and smiled. “Well, how do you?”
“Like this,” he said, bringing his hand close to my face then grabbing the air away from my breath with his fist. “Right from the stem.” We stepped out of the pasture and he clipped the fence back into place. “Essex style.”
I narrowed my eyes and scrunched my nose in playful distrust.
“Steven’s way is right too,” he said.
After that the nettles grew quickly.
They appeared late Thursday morning when I emerged from the butcher shop where I’d been helping Sam clean the meat and fat from beef bones. Tim was standing at the large outdoor sink, swishing a bushel-full of them around in a bath of cool water.
I cooked a small batch the next day, leftover from the CSA pickup, throwing them in a cast iron pan wet with a sheen of olive oil. I gave them the briefest run around the skillet then tentatively touched the top of one. No pain registered in my finger, so I removed them from the heat and ate one. It tasted like spinach – strong spinach – with an extra-bitter finish. It tasted like spring and the farm and I liked it a lot.
That night I spread them on a honey and wheat pizza crust, along with ramp sausage and a cautious sprinkling of feta cheese. The next day, we simply boiled and ate them with salt and pepper alongside a flank steak and mashed rutabaga.
I touched the top of a raw one, out of curiosity, and yanked my hand back, shaking my fingers as though I’d been burned on a hot stove. The pain lasted only a few moments, but after that turned into a persistent itch.
Monday turned out hot and sunny, 80 degrees in the afternoon and 96 in the greenhouse where I sat between rows of spinach and chard, weeding and working my bare feet into the dirt. I peeled off my tank top and let the heat hit my back in constant waves until an occasional gust of wind fluttered the sides of the greenhouse, sending the reality of April up my spine.
Melissa arrived home later that afternoon and the two of us walked to the barn to cherry-pick a handful of vegetables from the cellar. I had been braising a pork shoulder in the oven with maple syrup and a bit of rye whiskey, and I wanted to boil then smash small potatoes into little pancakes, finally baking them until crispy and hot. We filled a bag with enough for a crowd – as there was sure to be one – and headed back to the house.
“This is what I want to spoon over the pork,” I said, showing Melissa a vibrant green sauce that looked just like traditional Italian pesto. “I made it with walnuts instead of pine nuts,” I said, “and nettles instead of basil.”
She tasted it and made a face of approval. “Though,” she said, her eyes thoughtful. “I wonder if we still have cheese from Meadowood? We did, and I took it out of the refrigerator, unwrapping it to reveal a pretty off-white pebbled cheese, semi-hard with a green-fresh scent.
I had just finished grating a generous half-cup when Matt burst into the house. “We’re going to jump in the lake!” he said, grabbing his car keys and motioning for us to follow. Melissa and I looked at each other, our faces mirroring one another; wicked grins tinged with excitement. I lowered the oven’s temperature and covered the pesto with a kitchen towel then ran out of the house, pulling my sneakers onto bare feet as I went.
We packed ourselves into the cars, Melissa and Jen and Sam and Steven, Tim and Gillian and Matt and me, and off we drove to the lake in the six o’clock sun.
“Look at this. Look at this!” Matt shouted over the music as the car rolled past green hills that met bright blue sky tinged with pink. “This is where we live!” I smiled back as the wind blew hair into my face, and reached my hand behind me for Gillian to squeeze.
We arrived at the lake and all stood at the edge of the concrete ledge, looking at the water and rubbing our hands over our biceps. I don’t know who dove in first but we all followed after, some of us twice, or three times, shrieking and shouting as our bodies hit the cold water. My lungs tightened as I came up for air, but Tim grabbed my forearms and hands and pulled me out, then did the same for Sam, laughing as he heaved him up the wall, and I relaxed into the sun and heat.
That night we ate dinner late, bolstered by vodka mixed with raw milk and homemade Kahlua, the boys singing and playing guitar as the girls and I set out plates and silverware and sliced meat and tossed beets marinated in olive oil and herbs. We ate the pesto, of course, dolloped over the pork and crushed potatoes. It tasted like nettles but not like spring.
In every bite, with every loud laugh, I grew happier to be warm, to be with friends, to be at the farm. It was delicious and it tasted almost like summer.
Nettle and Walnut Pesto
Makes about 2 1/2-3 cups – much like spinach, the nettles shrink down drastically when heated.
- 1 cup walnuts
- 6 cups harvested nettles, rinsed clean*
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup aged sheep’s milk cheese, grated
- Salt, pepper
*When cleaning nettles, be sure to wear protective gloves.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet in a single layer and roast in the oven for 7-10 minutes, until fragrant. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.
Meanwhile, bring a large stockpot of water to a boil. Once at a vigorous pace, add the nettles – in batches, if you have to – and use a spider strainer or tongs to submerge them in the water. Cook for 30 seconds, then using the strainer or tongs, remove them to a colander set under cold running water.
Repeat the process until all of the nettles have been blanched and shocked. Do not drain the nettles by pouring the boiling water out, letting the colander catch them – you’ll want to save that liquid, and I’ll tell you why in just a minute.
At this point, the nettles will have lost their “sting,” so feel free to handle them with your bare hands. Squeeze as much excess water from them as you can, then separate the clumps. Set aside.
In a food processor, puree the garlic to fine pieces. Add the cooled walnuts and process coarsely – a little chunkiness is nice here. Add in the drained and squeezed nettles and process all together, streaming in the olive oil as you go.
The mixture should be quite thick, and if that’s what you’re in the market for (say, for bread-spreading) then feel free to skip the next step. However, I like to add in as much as a 1/2 cup of the “nettle stock,” or the liquid used to cook them to thin it out. Even if you don’t use it in this application, it is delicious and healthy, and can be added to soups or drunk as tea.
Once the texture is to your liking, transfer the sauce to a bowl and stir in the grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper and use as you would a typical pesto or sauce.