I am always in awe when I eat a dish that is made from food that is caught, harvested, or foraged that day. This past weekend, I joined Vineyard cookbook author Cathy Walthers at her West Tisbury home for an exploration of the wild bounty growing in her backyard.
“If you taste it and it tastes pretty good, you can probably eat it,” said Ms. Walthers, echoing the words of forager Russ Cohen, wild food enthusiast and author of “Wild Plants I Have Known and Eaten.” Greens are usually a safe bet, but don’t mess with mushrooms unless you have experience identifying species.
The pick of the day was stinging nettles. While many associate stinging nettles with unpleasant childhood memories, few realize that this plant, perilous to the touch, is in fact edible when cooked.
Ms. Walthers compared the excitement of the first nettles of the season to when bay scallops become available in Vineyard waters in the fall. “Nettles are really perfect and tender to eat,” she said.
On the Vineyard, wild nettles are known to grow near farms in wet, loamy soil. Ms. Walthers has a nettle patch in her garden that she planted from the seeds of a friend’s nettle plant. “I love that it’s free, that it comes up on its own and I don’t have to do anything,” she said.
Nettles usually come up April through mid May, and they can be cut several times. The leaves tend to be more tender than the stems, but both are edible, especially if it is a young plant. This nutrient-rich food is high in chlorophyll and packed with vitamins, minerals, protein, and amino acids.
“Wild greens tend to have more nutrition than cultivated greens like kale and collards,” said Ms. Walthers. “The stinging part [of nettles] turns to protein. It’s a green with one of the highest amounts of protein.”
The serrated edge leaves contain stinging hairs, which can cause irritation upon contact, so be sure to wear gloves and take care when harvesting.
Nettles are best eaten when the plant is about a foot in height. Clip only a couple of inches from the top part of the plant, the first 3 to 4 shoots. Make sure to wash thoroughly using tongs to handle the greens.
If you happen have contact with the leaves, curled dock, a wild green found in the spring and fall, can be used as an antidote.
After the nettles were carefully harvested and washed, it was time to sample the dangerous delicacy. First up was nettle tea, boiling water poured over a handful of leaves and stems.
“I’m going for the nutrition,” Ms. Walthers said. “After I drink the tea, I eat the greens and stems.” The subtly flavored tea is said to have energizing properties. The leaves can also be dried for tea.
“Most greens taste good with garlic,” Ms. Walthers said while she sautéed the nettles in olive oil and garlic. This was another winner; the nettles had a mild taste with a tender texture. Ms. Walthers suggests that you treat nettles as you would cooked spinach: they can be added to quiche, soup, eggs, and risotto — or stand on their own.
Other wild foods
As we walked around Ms. Walthers’s yard she pointed out other wild edibles, including dandelion greens, violet leaves, and flowers.
“You want to taste it to see if you would eat it in a salad,” she said, referring to the dandelion greens. “Usually you want to eat it before it flowers, when the leaves are still tender and young and not too bitter.”
She went on to talk about mustard greens, wild patches of watercress, Japanese knotweed, and sea rocket, which can all be found on the Island.
Heavy Nettle Festival
This Sunday, May 5, head to Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown from 10 am to 2 pm for Heavy Nettles, a festival celebrating nettles and other wild foods found on Island. Learn how to grow, harvest, and cook nettles at this free event, co-hosted by Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard and Felix Neck.
Cooking demos, which include recipes and tastings, are $5 each, to cover food costs ($3 if you are a Slow Food or Felix Neck member). Pick up some tips with Gabrielle Redner and Zephir Plume as they prepare nettle dips, dressings and sauces, then join Chris Fischer for a lesson in fresh pasta with wild greens. Stop by Ms. Walthers’s class to try nettle spanikopita and spring watercress salad, or attend Jan Buhrman’s cooking demo for an introduction to nettle and watercress soup.
Lectures include a keynote talk on the medicinal virtues of nettles by herbalist Holly Bellebuono, identification and preparation tips of wild edibles by Felix Neck Director Suzan Bellincampi, and growing instructions by local forager Kevin Brennan, who will sell plants to those that want to start their own patch.
Don’t miss the spring greens cooking challenge at 11:30 am. Attendees are encouraged to bring a dish made with foraged or local ingredients.
“With the Kale Festival [at Mermaid Farm in 2011] it was really fun to see the kale dishes; it will be fun to see what people make with nettles,” Ms. Walthers said. Judges include Bill Manson from the Local Wild Food Challenge and Aaron Oster, president of Slow Food M.V. and chef at The Port Hunter. If you’re not in a competitive spirit, bring a dish to share for the spring greens potluck.
Contact Cathy at email@example.com for nettles to cook with for the competition.
Local greens recipe: Watercress, strawberry, and feta salad
At this time of year, check your yard for the tiny, edible violet flowers to make a contrasting garnish.
6 cups (approximately) watercress, large stems removed
1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Violet flowers, for garnish
2 tbs regular or white balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
5 tbs olive oil
Salt to taste
Rinse and spin-dry the watercress. Place in a wide bowl that shows off the salad.
Make the dressing by whisking vinegar, maple syrup and olive oil in a small bowl. Season with salt.
When ready to serve, mix the dressing with the salad. Toss well.
Top with the sliced strawberries, feta, and edible flowers if available.
– Recipe by Cathy Walthers