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by meg

In the South, pokeweed is a springtime delicacy. I’ve never really fooled with it, mostly because I figure anything that needs to be boiled in a few changes of water isn’t meant to be eaten. But I know some old-timers who talk about eating the first tender poke leaves and how it was a sort of spring cleansing food. And I guess after a few months of nothing but storage crops, cornmeal, beans, and salt pork, I would probably jump at the chance to get something green on my plate, even if it were technically poisonous.

On the West Coast, you don’t see much pokeweed. Instead, nettles seem to be the preferred spring curative, and thankfully they’re not poisonous. They are, however, rather prickly, as anyone who has stumbled upon a nettle patch unawares will tell you. And so cooking with nettles requires a little vigilance. Normally, I just put on some rubber gloves when handling them, but you can use tongs too. A quick blanch in boiling water neutralizes the stingers, then you’re home free.

Why bother with something that stings? Many people tout the “cleansing” properties of nettles. But I’m no nutritionist. I eat things because they taste good, and I think nettles are pretty delicious. They have the same ultra-green flavor as spinach or chard, but they’re less watery. They also grow in the wild, meaning you can pick grocery bags full of them FOR FREE and make all kinds of goodness with them.

One of my old standbys is nettle pesto. It’s easy, can be used on anything from pasta to sandwiches to roasted potatoes, and freezes well. If you have a bumper crop of nettles, make extra pesto and freeze it for later. This pizza uses nettle pesto as a “sauce” and is topped with morels and fontina. But if you don’t want to go to the trouble of making nettle pesto, you can take an alternate route--just toss nettle leaves (trim them away from the tough stalk) with olive oil, and pile them on your pizza. The heat of the oven will deactivate the stingers, and some of the nettles will get a little crisp. It’s an equally delicious approach to this springtime pie.

Other spring delicacies you might enjoy: Pan Roasted Venison Loin in Ramps and Bacon, Spring Lamb Stew, Asparagus and Ricotta Tartines

Morel and Nettle Pesto Pizza
Two 12-inch pizzas (2-4 servings depending on how hungry you are)

If you really want to make things easy on yourself, you can buy prepared pesto and pizza dough at most supermarkets.

Have ready:
     1 recipe Pizza Dough
     1 recipe Nettle Pesto (or feel free to use normal pesto!)
     1 cup cleaned, dried, and sliced morel mushrooms
     4 ounces fontina, shredded
     ¼ cup finely grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 500 to 550℉, preferably with a baking stone or pizza steel* inside. Divide the dough in half, form into balls, and shape, using the back of your hands to stretch the dough. Place the dough on a pizza peel dusted with cornmeal or you can simply turn a sheet pan upside down and use that to bake your pizza (this is definitely the easier route if you have pizza peel anxiety--don’t worry! We’ve all been there.).
Spread ¼ cup of the pesto over the crust and top with half the mushrooms and cheese. Slide onto the stone or place the whole sheet pan in the oven and cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until bubbly and starting to brown. Turn on the broiler and broil until the crust is well-browned and the top of the pizza is browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and repeat the process with the remaining dough.
If desired, top with:
     Miner’s lettuce or arugula

*We bought a baking steel a few years ago and have never looked back. If you like to make pizza at home but aren't quite satisfied with the crust on your pies, it's well worth the investment. Also, just like cast iron, this is a piece of cooking equipment that will outlive you, so you'll definitely get your money's worth.

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