Note: If you cannot find ramps, feel free to substitute garlic chives, which have a very similar flavor, shallots, or even leeks. In any case, you'll want about 1/4 to 1/3 cup minced onion....
Things have a way of falling in my lap. Sometimes it’s a small thing, like the discovery of a crabapple tree laden with enough fruit to snap its branches. It made the best apple butter I’ve ever eaten. Sometimes it’s a life-changing thing—the three and a half year apprenticeship with a cheesemaker that I fell into, for instance.
I’ve learned that it’s best to go with it. Take chances. Accept generosity (with the intent of repaying it). Keep an open mind. Learn. The process can be transformative, or it can be a bit more mundane than all that. But it never fails to amuse and instruct.
Foraging has been no different. I can’t call myself an active forager. I don’t tend to go looking for wild foods, as it seems that I can never find the things I’m looking for. But after reading a few foraging books, from Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus to Hank Shaw’s Hunt, Gather, Cook, and learning about the ecology of the surrounding area, I’ve stumbled across more than a few wild foods. Wild garlic and chickweed in the spring, blackberries and elderberries in the summer, black walnuts and rose hips in the fall—it’s less about spending your days wandering the wildwood and more about being able to identify plants and their edible components.
Here’s where I issue my standard foraging caveat: if you aren’t sure what it is, don’t eat it. Better yet, try to get some idea of what edible plants grow in your area and when they’re ripe for the picking (or digging or pulling…). The best advice comes from a reliable field guide to edible plants, such as Lee Allen Peterson’s A Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants or Robert Henderson’s The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet. Wild greens can harbor concentrations of oxalates, nitrates, and other toxic elements. Such irritants are lessened by cooking and can be eliminated entirely by parboiling before a final cooking. Sample all wild greens sparingly. Remember, too, that all plants have seasons when they are succulent and periods when they are inedible, and that they all need careful washing to remove grit.
However, I’m guessing you’ll be able to positively identify the wild food in question today: stinging nettle. If you’ve ever brushed against one of these plants (or, heaven forbid, walked through a patch of them), you know what they are. Nettles have 1 to 3 inch long leaves with strongly serrated edges. The stinging hairs all over the plant are visible to the eye. See the photo above.
When picking or handling nettles, wear gloves or use tongs. Even a pair of household rubber gloves will provide ample protection from the nettle’s sting. If you are stung, wash the area immediately in warm, soapy water and apply hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion. The sting is irritating but harmless.
The plant tends to favor shady, moist areas such as floodplains, woodland areas, and along rivers and streams. However, due to a rise in popularity, you may even be able to find them at your local farmer’s market.
For our purposes, I will classify stinging nettle as a “green,” in the vein of kale, chard, collards, and spinach. At least, in the kitchen it should be treated as a green. Nettles may be sautéed, steamed, boiled, or added to soups and stews. Nettle tea is also a common use. The only requirement for nettles is that they be cooked in some fashion. Cooking “deactivates” the nettle’s sting, and so you probably shouldn’t try to treat them like a salad green.
As I was doing research on the nettle, I came across a recipe for “champ” in Darina Allen’s book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking. Champ is a mashed potato dish, much like colcannon, to which various other ingredients may be added—kale, leeks, herbs, peas, and stinging nettle. Even better, apparently in Ireland champ is traditionally set out on Halloween to appease the mischievous fairies for another year. So, en lieu of candy apples and garishly decorated cupcakes, I deemed champ an appropriate Halloween dish.
In the event that you are unable to find nettles, this dish would be equally successful with another green such as kale, chard, or spinach. You might also choose to substitute the leek with green onions. Ultimately, the potatoes act as a canvas—a carrier, if you will, for the other flavors in this dish. The result is warm, creamy, and wonderfully delicious.
Other articles you might enjoy: Pureed Cauliflower With Caramelized Shallots and Fried Sage
Place in a medium pot:
1 ½ pounds potatoes (any variety should be fine, although smaller potatoes will cook faster), washed and peeled
Cover with cool water and bring to a boil. Cook until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a knife, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, gently heat over medium, being careful not to boil:
2/3 cup milk
Melt in a medium skillet over medium heat:
2 tablespoons butter
Add and sauté until wilted, about 5 minutes:
1 medium leek, thinly sliced
Add and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes:
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 ounces stinging nettle, washed, tough stems removed, and coarsely chopped
Cover the skillet to steam the nettles. You may need to add a little water or stock to start the process. Steam until the nettles are quite wilted and tender, about 10 minutes.
Drain and mash the potatoes. Stir in the hot milk, wilted nettles, and:
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste