Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Ultimate Tonic

After posting about my spring de-tox, it occurred to me that Stinging Nettle Tea really deserves its own post. This is a tonic everyone should know about, a tonic that's survived through the ages because it works.

The month of March, I was surprised to learn from my family doctor, is the worst time for flu, and I found this out first-hand toward the end of my de-tox. Who knows whether thrice-daily cups of Nettle Tea boosted my immune system, but I was able to lick the flu relatively easily without suffering the worst of its blows.

How To Make Your Own Nettle Tea

1. Forage stinging nettles or buy at a farmer's market.

2. If you have a screen window you can repurpose or some other similar screen or mesh, prop it up on the floor of a sunny room so that air passes underneath. I scavenged a window screen and lay it across stacks of books at the four corners. (You could probably use baking pans in an oven turned very low, too.) Now employ a fan to blow off moisture. Turn the nettles periodically with tongs. Drying time will vary by local climate. Here in the Pacific Northwest it took a few days to fully dry my batch. Once dried, the nettles lose their sting.

3. Feed dried nettles into a food processor and pulverize. Voila: tea. Now store in a proper air-tight canister.

Nettle Tea will surprise you with its distinctive taste, and as a spring tonic it has few equals. Give it a try and tell me what you think.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fire-Roasted Tomato Soup with Nettle Pesto

Okay, so fire-roasted may be a stretch. But while tomatoes, red peppers, and garlic are merely roasted in the oven, the effect is almost the same, with that deep, rich flavor that only high heat can seduce out of the main ingredients. But the real show-stopper here, the element that takes a good soup over the top to make it great is the stinging nettle pesto floated on the surface. Roasted garlic meets raw garlic—with a vernal shot of the wild thrown in for good measure.

Let me tell you, folks, this is some good action—and if you're still dubious about pesky stinging nettles, wander over here or here to see what all the nutritional hoohaw is. These are some seriously salubrious greens. They make spinach look like junk food.

I posted about the pesto the other day. To make the soup I tooled around the Infobahn for a while, cherry-picking ideas from a variety of recipes. You know what I discovered? People really like tomato soup. There's no shortage of recipes online. I decided to go for a hearty, rustic sort of deal, though you can tame this soup into a smoother, more genteel presentation with a good long pulse in a food processor.

1 28 oz can whole or diced tomatoes
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 head garlic, sliced in half across cloves
3 cups vegetable stock (or more)
1 rib celery, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
1 tbsp fresh parsley
1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
olive oil
1 shallot, julienned, for garnish
nettle pesto, for garnish

1. Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Grease a glass baking dish with 2 tbsp olive oil. Drain can of tomatoes, reserving liquid, and pour into dish. Brush oil onto red peppers and garlic halves and add to dish. Roast, flipping peppers once, until peppers start to blacken and garlic is soft, about 30 minutes.

2. In heavy pot over medium heat, saute onion and celery in a tablespoon or so of olive oil until soft, several minutes.

3. Peel garlic and set aside. Add roasted tomatoes and peppers to pot, along with 2 cups of stock, reserved tomato liquid, oregano, rosemary, and seasoning. Simmer 10 minutes. Add roasted garlic and blend together to desired consistency with immersion blender or food processor. Add 1 more cup of stock (or more), stir, and simmer another couple minutes.

4. Saute shallot in oil until starting to caramelize. Remove to paper towel and salt.

5. Serve soup and garnish with crispy shallot bits and a few dollops of stinging nettle pesto.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wild Food De-Tox

Dear readers, this forager is a hurtin' pup. Maybe part of the problem is he isn't exactly a pup anymore—but still acts like one. Last Saturday I took my son skiing. It was one of those special days, snowing even in Seattle as we pulled out of town. We drove up to Snoqualmie Pass and the white stuff was really coming down, fat fluffy flakes, not the usual Cascade concrete. I explained to Riley that this was the sort of day powder hounds dream of, that we needed to take full advantage and ski all day. Incredibly, no one was on the mountain. We skied onto the lift after each run. Eight more inches must have fallen while we were there—fresh tracks of bottomless, knee-deep powder if you picked the right line. Glorious skiing.

And then I tried stepping out of the car after the drive home. Yikes. My body was trashed. One of the hazards of a snow day like that is that snow is pelting your goggles, the light is flat, and visibility is generally poor. More than once I dropped off a steep pitch without knowing it, only to feel the landing a moment later, and since I was on my ancient tele boards and not alpine, my body absorbed most of the impact.

So here I am laid up on my back. It's a back with serious issues. For the past year I've been trying to heal myself by cutting out one of my favorite forms of exercise, a game that's terribly hard on the body but is a game nonetheless and so beats the hell out of jogging: squash. The net result has been 20 pounds gained and no improvement to the back. It's time to shed the extra poundage. I've decided to initiate the process with a cleansing. We do this occasionally with a few nutty friends, usually in the spring. The first one started years ago as a dare, a friendly bit of one-upsmanship among pals, then over time we worked up to a brutal 10-day fast. Since then we've toned it down a bit.

This cleansing comes from The Source. Marty found it. We adapted the recipes somewhat to make use of our wild foods, which are generally healthier for you than domesticated.

The first few days were all liquids. For breakfast we made fruit smoothies with either antioxidant-rich wild blackberries or huckleberries foraged last summer, along with fresh pineapple, pineapple juice, flaxseed oil, flax meal, and rice milk. I've never been much of a smoothie fan—I prefer my fruits whole—but this was surprisingly tasty.

Wild Berry De-Tox Smoothie

1 1/2 cups wild berries (or mango, papaya, etc.)
1 cup fresh pineapple (optional)
1 cup pineapple juice
3/4 cup unsweetened soy or rice milk
1 1/2 tsp fresh ginger
1 heaping tbsp flax meal
1 tsp flax oil
1 tbsp probiotic powder or liquid

Combine into blender and whir.

For lunch and dinner we made Miso Soup with Shitaki and Morel Mushrooms. You'd be surprised how far miso soup can take you. This is all we ate for three days, along with water, tea, and occasional cups of organic veggie juice as permitted by the plan.

Shitake-Morel Miso Soup

1-2 oz dried morels (or other mushroom), soaked in 1 cup warm water, about 30 min.
7 cups water
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced into rounds
10 fresh shitake mushrooms, de-stemmed and thinly sliced
2 slices fresh ginger, unpeeled, 1/4 inch thick
2 tbsp white miso
3 stalks bok choy, thinly sliced
dried seaweed (optional)

1. Prep vegetables while dried mushrooms are reconstituting. Place all vegetables except bok choy in large pot with water. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20-40 minutes.

2. Slice soaking mushrooms and add to pot with water.

3. When soup is finished, turn off heat, discard ginger, and stir in miso. Next add bok choy. Serve with tamari.

Over the course of the cleansing fast I developed a fondness for stinging nettle tea. It's a wonderful spring tonic. People have known about the restorative effects of nettles for centuries. Being one of the first greens of the season, they have a long history of use as a way to transition the body from the rigors of winter into the spring outdoor work season. As a fasting food, they're useful for both cleansing the system and injecting nutrients that the body craves at this time of year. I made the tea from nettles I had collected, dried, and pulverized last year.

On Day Four we introduced Kale and White Bean Soup to the dinner menu. The Brassica family is renowned for its cleansing properties.

Saturday night, after six days, we broke the fast at our friends' annual St. Patty's Day dinner. Who am I to turn down an expertly roasted corned beef? Mostly, though, I stuck to the root vegetables—and a single wee nip because I could feel Old Man Winter making one last claim on my health. The next day we were back into cleansing mode. We ate the Kale and White Bean Soup for lunch and Sweet and Spicy Greens for dinner. For the latter I harvested my first batch of dandelion greens in the backyard and mixed them with collards. Dandelions have been used for centuries as a liver cleanser, among their many other medicinal properties.

Sweet and Spicy Greens

1 bunch collard greens, chopped
1 bunch dandelion greens
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp olive oil
2-3 tbsp apple juice
pinch salt

In large pan or skillet, saute garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil over medium heat. Add greens with apple juice and simmer, covered, on low for 15 minutes. Season to taste.

This was by far the easiest, least taxing fast I've undertaken. Who knows if a week is really enough to give the body a rest? If nothing else, you feel healthier in your mind, and that's half the battle right there. I tend to be highly suspicious of books that tell you how to "unleash your inner energy" and so on. That said, the idea of regular fasting strikes me as a fairly sane practice in the face of all the toxins we're confronted with on a daily basis. Let's face it, we've polluted our air and our water—the very foundations of life—and regardless of what the EPA says about human health and acceptable levels of contaminants in our environment, simple common sense would say that all of us are affected by what we eat, drink, and breathe. Purging your system periodically makes sense to me—as does giving your body a dose of wild foods.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Sad Record

The interweb has been buzzing recently with news of a tremendous wild steelhead caught on Washington State's Hoh River. Normally such a fish would be worth celebrating, but these are not normal times. Though I was initially intending to stay out of the fray on this one, it occurs to me on second thought that I'll be touching on some of these issues in print soon, so I might as well wade into the controversy now.

The behemoth pictured above was hooked, landed, and...killed. The angler has been quoted saying the fish was bleeding from the gill and he thought it would die if released. We'll never know. It was tallied a day later, weighing in at 29.5 pounds, a state record. The fish was not eaten; it will hang on a wall.

The death of such a magnificent animal—and its pre-spawning removal from a diminished gene pool—saddens me. Wild steelhead are in bad shape throughout most of their range. This fish came from the Olympic Peninsula's "West End," the rainforest rivers that drain off the western edge of the Olympic Mountains into the Pacific and contain, by all accounts, the last best habitat for native steelhead in the Lower 48.

Incredibly, on a handful of these rivers it is still legal to kill one wild steelhead a year, a concession that no one would argue is a political bone thrown to the down-at-the-heels timber town of Forks, Washington, where town fathers are convinced a catch-and-kill fishery is necessary to attract paying anglers from around the world who want nothing more than to catch and kill a trophy steelhead. One wonders if these same "sportsmen" would leap at the chance to legally take one of the last Siberian tigers or Javan rhinos.

I'm not opposed to killing fish. Quite the contrary, I enjoy fishing for healthier runs of salmon in the fall to stock my freezer. Mostly, though, I release fish, especially those from beleaguered runs—even if the regulations allow for their taking. No shortage of huffing and puffing has been expended by supporters of catch and kill to point out the hypocrisy of those of us in favor of catch and release. Fly-fishermen in particular are deemed elitist. Now you may wonder why I advocate ending catch-and-kill steelhead fishing but still support catch-and-release. It's not pretzel logic. Anglers are probably the steelhead's best friend. Author David James Duncan has already given an eloquent response to this question.

So here's my position:

First, I believe wild steelhead should be no-kill wherever they are found in their native range. Take hatchery steelhead home for the barbecue; leave the wild fish in the river. This is my practice whenever I go steelhead fishing, which isn't much anymore. The wild steelhead I've caught on the OP and elsewhere have all been returned to the river. I do not keep wild fish, even where it is legal to do so. If I had caught that fish, I would have let it go—bleeding gill or not—and hoped for the best.

Second, I am not opposed to future limited kill fisheries if steelhead conservation measures are successful. Unfortunately, I don't see this happening any time soon.

Third, I recognize catch-and-release fishing is a blood sport. In pursuing my interest in fishing, I have inadvertently killed released fish; it's a statistical probability. I don't deny this. But legions of anglers such as myself are also responsible for the conservation victories throughout the land helping wild fish and watersheds. This may sound like a paradox to some, but it is a fact nonetheless.

Fourth, I cannot imagine staring at that great fish on the wall every day. Far from being a remembrance of a beautiful day on the river, it would make me sick. Those who hunt and fish only to adorn their walls with "trophies" should skip the "manly arts" altogether and turn directly to the back of the classifieds for ads on penis enlargement surgery.

If you're interested in steelhead and salmon conservation, check out the Wild Steelhead Coalition and the Wild Salmon Center.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Stinging Nettle Pesto

I've evangelized stinging nettles plenty in this space before. If you're still a skeptic, here's an an oh-so-foolproof way to get yer nettles on. (And a good reason not to feel guilty about owning a Cuisinart that takes up valuable shelf space.) If you live in the PNW, don't tarry: the coastal nettles are perfect size right now, and foothills nettles shouldn't be too far off. For my brothers and sisters in the Midwest and Northeast, hang in there—your time is nigh.

2 cups stinging nettles, blanched and chopped (figure 6 cups raw)
1/2 cup Parmesan
1/2 cup pine nuts, roasted
4-5 large garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper, to taste

Because stinging nettles must be boiled briefly to neutralize the sting—unlike basil—my advice is to use a food processor. Much has been said about making the traditional basil pesto in a blender—much of it disparaging. 101 Cookbooks recommends chopping the ingredients together with a mezzaluna and David Lebovitz uses the uber-traditional mortar and pestle. But nettles are different from basil. Once boiled and drained, they're a soggy mess; a food processor remedies this sorry state without messing with that splendid day-glo green color.

1. Blanche nettles for a minute in boiling water. Remove to a salad spinner and shake off excess water, then ball up your nettles and give one good squeeze to wring out more water. It's tough to watch all that dark green, nutrient-laden liquid vanish down the drain, but you'll want olive oil lubricating your pesto, not water.

2. Add nettles to food processor, along with roasted pine nuts (or walnuts, if you prefer), grated parmesan, garlic cloves, lemon juice, and seasoning. Pour half of the olive oil in and...Whirrrr. Pour the rest of the oil in. Whir again, until your preferred consistency. That's it.

This recipe makes a fairly pasty pesto; if you want something a little more spreadable for bread, sammiches, etc., try using more olive oil.

Next, think about putting up. You may want to fill a few small (e.g. 4 oz) tubs for the freezer for dinner party pasta, as well as an ice tray for smaller servings. To fill the tray, use a plastic Ziploc with a corner cut out and squeeze out a blob of pesto in each cavity, just like icing. Remove the pesto cubes from the tray once frozen and seal in a freezer bag; now you've got instant sauce to brighten a fillet of fish or piece of meat—or simply to spread on good homemade rosemary bread baked by your friend and neighbor, as we did.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Oyster Stew

Lately I've been considering the oyster. We're lucky in Washington: this is the only state between Mexico and Canada on the West Coast where you can harvest wild oysters on public land. Both Oregon and California are closed to oyster harvest, though I imagine you might be able to find u-pick shellfish farms in those states for a fee. With a shellfish license that costs a few bucks, a daily limit of 18 oysters in Washington starts to look pretty good when you consider market and raw bar prices.

Like M.F.K. Fisher, my favorite way to eat oysters is raw, which is to say alive, with a light mignonette dipping sauce. These are good times for those of us who indulge in such carnivorous habits, especially in the Northwest. Oyster farmers have developed a number of standout strains, from the deep-pocketed Kusshi to the marriage of East and West in the Totten Virginica. Here's a good resource for North American oyster appellations, so you know what you're ordering at the raw bar.

But mostly I like to pick among the wild oyster beds of Puget Sound, where the oysters are not nearly so civilized. Many of my beaches now carry notices warning harvesters that eating raw shellfish can be hazardous to your health—no doubt the usual CYA legalese that we're so accustomed to in this litigious age.

Signage hasn't stopped me yet, even though these are rough-and-tumble, barnacle-clad specimens, sometimes of monstrous proportions. You have to look carefully for the smaller ones—or you can go for quantity over quality and make stew.

1 cup celery, minced (about 3 ribs)
1 shallot, minced (3 tbsp)
1 large potato, chopped
4 tbsp butter
3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 limit large oysters (or 2 12 oz jars)
salt and white pepper
fresh parsley, chopped for garnish
hot sauce

In a heavy pot saute shallot in butter over medium heat. Add potatoes and celery, season, and saute for 15 minutes. Add 3 cups milk and cook just below simmer until potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Use an immersion blender or food processor to blend milk and vegetables. Add heavy cream, then oysters and their liquor. (I chopped up my big oysters into bite-size pieces.) Oysters are done when edges curl. Serve immediately with hot sauce and cold beer.

Friday, March 6, 2009


What's in a name? In our anxiety-prone food culture we tend to get uptight about the smallest lexical tics and demarkations. For instance, is it a Bouillabaisse or a Cioppino? How about Fish Soup—that seems to work pretty well. Italians mostly call dishes like this Zuppa di Pesce—Fish Soup. Occasionally Ciuppin. And sometimes Brodetto... Okay, you get the idea.

A Brodetto is a regional Italian variation found along the Adriatic that calls for special inclusion of the scorpionfish, or scorfano. Bouillabaisse is the Provencal word for essentially the same thing. All involve a mixture of both finned fish and shellfish, cooked in a tomato and wine-based stew, with peasant bread for sopping up the rich broth.

Cioppino, legend has it, is a New World invention—the word, that is. Italian immigrants shipping out of San Francisco to fish the Pacific ate Cioppino at sea—the catch of the day plus whatever other ingredients they had on board. The word derives from ciuppin, which translates as "chop"—in other words, chop it all together and make soup.

That's what I love about Cioppinos and their ilk. When you can get past the regional claims, prejudices, and pronouncements, a Cioppino is merely an efficient and delectable way to make use of the odds and ends hanging around in the fridge. But to do it right you still need a variety of fish. Make it with either red wine or white; with spicy peppers or saffron; with fennel or celery. Just make it. You won't be disappointed.

I made mine with Dungeness crab I dove for this summer, spot shrimp caught last spring, and a medley of mollusks gathered this past weekend: Manila clams, native littlenecks, and mussels. At the fish market I supplemented the shrimp and bought small bay scallops and Alaskan yellow-eye rockfish (sold as "red snapper," a fish that doesn't exist on the West Coast). There was a time when I might have speared my own rockfish but those along the inner shore of Puget Sound are too small and beleaguered to be harvested now.

The bivalves came from my usual beach, where we got limits of oysters, clams, and mussels. Too bad it was raining all day because the low-low tide exposed more of the beach than usual, which made for first-rate exploring. We found eels and other small fish hiding in the oyster beds, and one stretch was carpeted with sand dollars.

Here are my ingredients this time around. Remember that you can use just about anything that swims in the sea, or that filters salt water, as the case may be. Squid add lots of flavor. Just about any firm white-fleshed fish is a good choice; avoid more fragile-fleshed species such as flounder, sole, and thin cuts of cod as well as the dark-fleshed fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, tuna) that will overpower the stew. I used 2 cups of homemade shrimp stock. You can use a cup of clam juice plus a cup of chicken broth, or conventional fish stock. Fish heads are ideal if you can get them; my market was sold out.

2 dozen littleneck clams
2 dozen (or more) mussels
1 lb shrimp, shelled
1 lb bay scallops
1/2 cooked Dungeness crab, broken into leg segments
1 lb rockfish fillets, cut into 3-inch pieces
1-2 cups white wine (or red)
1 28 oz can whole plum tomatoes with liquid
2 cups fish stock (or clam juice, shrimp stock, etc.)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp tomato paste
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions (or 1 large), chopped
2 ribs celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 bay leaf
1-2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
fresh basil for garnish
good bread

In a heavy pot or Dutch oven saute the onions in olive oil over medium heat for a minute or two, then add the garlic, chopped vegetables, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Cook several minutes until veggies are soft, then stir in tomato paste. Cook another minute and pour in wine and let bubble for a couple minutes. Add tomatoes and stock, roughly chopping the whole tomatoes in the pot. Simmer for a least 30 minutes; longer is better. Add the crab legs and simmer another 15 minutes. When you're ready to serve the stew, add the fin fish first and simmer for a few minutes, then add the shellfish. When the clams and mussels have all opened, stir in the parsley. It's ready to eat. Serve piping hot with good crusty bread and some chopped basil for garnish.

As written above, this Cioppino will easily serve six, but for larger groups you can add another can of tomatoes, more wine and stock, extra seasoning, and leave the seafood amounts as is. Or, if serving a smaller group you might consider cutting the shrimp and scallops by half. All this seafood can be expensive when paying market prices, so tinker according to your budget and taste. It's a very forgiving dish.

Lock and Load

FOTL headquarters has just been informed that it has been named one of the 50 best blogs for gun enthusiasts. This just goes to show that gun enthusiasts across our great land can enjoy the jottings of a Left Coast conservation-minded sort who eats wild foods. Many thanks to the Criminal Justice Degrees Guide.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Stinging Nettle Ravioli with Sage Butter

As I posted yesterday, it's stinging nettle time in the Northwest lowlands. In the next few weeks I'll harvest enough to last me through winter, and as spring reaches higher up in elevation I'll periodically bring home a fresh young batch.

Nettles are best when a foot or less off the ground; later in the season you can harvest the tops, but eventually they become too fibrous. This year I've decided to stretch myself in the nettle cookery department, and what better way to kick off a new season than with Stinging Nettle Ravioli.

Every time I go through the trouble of finding our pasta maker buried beneath all the other kitchen detritus in the back of the cabinet and then go through the rather long process of making my own, I still wonder, Why don't I do this more often? There's no substitute for homemade pasta.


Make the filling while your pasta dough is "resting" in the fridge. The hardest part in this step is dealing with the nettles. Wear gloves and clean up carefully—you don't want a stray leaf nabbing you when you least expect it.

10 oz stinging nettles (equivalent to 1 package frozen spinach)
1 15 oz ricotta
1/2 cup grated parm
1/4 cup whipped cream cheese
1 egg
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg

1. Blanche nettles for 1 minute in boiling water and drain. This is enough to neutralize the sting. Squeeze out excess water. Chop nettles. Later in the season, when the nettles are more robust, you'll want to remove the lower stem.

2. Combine cheeses, seasoning, and egg into a bowl. Stir in chopped nettles.


I follow Marcella Hazan's recipe, which calls for 2 large eggs per cup of flour and a half-teaspoon of milk for filled pasta. I doubled the amounts. (Be prepared to add more flour as necessary; as with baking, anything can influence the making of fresh pasta: heat, humidity, the stock market...)

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 tsp milk

Unlike Marcella, however, I combine my pasta ingredients in a food processor (horrors!), removing the dough when it starts to ball up and adding more flour by hand until I can reach a finger into the dough and pull it out without any dough sticking.

Next I commence to kneading. The technique here is to use the heel of your palm and push down on the dough, flattening it in the middle, then turning the dough clockwise a half turn, folding it over and pressing the heel of your hand into the dough again. Repeat. Repeat some more. Repeat until it's smooth as the proverbial baby's bottom, no less than eight minutes according to Marcella. Now refrigerate in plastic wrap while you make the filling.

After retrieving the pasta dough from the fridge, roll it into a log and cut it into a dozen equal parts (Marcella calls for six parts per 2 eggs). Each part then gets fed into the pasta maker, starting at 1 and finishing at 6.

Make two leaves at a time (top and bottom layers), trim them, and use a melon ball scoop to add the filling at intervals. Next sandwich the two leaves and use a fluted pasta wheel to get those nice scalloped edges, making sure to firmly press the two leaves together around each dumpling.

Sage Butter Sauce

Figure a minimum of a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of chopped fresh sage per serving (with more butter for those of us not hung up about fat content). Melt butter in small saute pan over medium heat. While the butter is starting to melt, gently drop ravioli into a pot of salted water on low boil. Add sage to butter. The ravioli should start floating to the surface after a couple minutes. Remove to a warm plate with slotted spoon. Meanwhile, stir the butter and sage as the butter foams, and just as it starts to brown a tiny bit kill the heat and pour sauce over ravioli. Add a few grindings of salt. The specks of brown, caramelized butter sweeten the sauce ever so slightly, and combined with the sage, this simple sauce packs a wallop that belies its meager list of ingredients.

Serves 6-8.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Jolt of Spring

The last day of February found me skulking around a moist woodland near sea-level, zeroing in on signs of spring. One of my favorite harbingers of the season is now rearing its quarrelsome head: the stinging nettle. Apologies to those foragers still shoveling snow, but know that green things are stirring beneath white blankets.

In my neighborhood the nettles are just now reaching a perfect height for the first harvest. Most are about six inches off the ground, a few nearing a foot. At this stage they're tender and nutrient-packed, and you don't have to worry about trimming the stems. I picked two grocery bag's worth.

Long sleeves and gloves are de rigeur. I use kitchen shears to lop them off at the heel. It doesn't take long for the fresh smell of the cut nettles to envelope you like a cool, minty fog. Unlike grass clippings, with their scent of decomposition, cut nettles smell like the life is rising out of them and swirling around you. It's a pleasant and energizing aroma—energy being the key word here. Stinging nettles have more protein than almost any other plant in the kingdom. They're loaded with minerals.

Even with gloves, my first few cuts are hesitant. Maybe this will be the year nettles learn how to pierce rubber. Phantom itches develop, and you start to wonder whether the nettles can shoot some of their noxious chemicals into the air as they fall to the shears. Those nasty little hairs work on a principle similar to a bee's sting: formic acid and histamine combine to jolt the unwary.

It's amazing we eat these things.

When I first started cooking with nettles they were still somewhat exotic, but the market for wild foods has exploded in recent years. Now it seems like most people have seen them on a restaurant menu or tasted a friend's homemade nettle soup. Soup was always my first choice too, though now I'm eating nettles other ways. You can pretty much substitute them into any recipe that calls for spinach, such as lasagna.

Stay tuned for Stinging Nettle Ravioli...