Local food isn’t a trend. What we’ve been seeing in the marketplace – an increase in organics, profiles of local farmers, talk of healthy soil – these are all important facets getting more attention in a new food and wellness paradigm that is taking shape and is here to stay.
Our culture is starting to shift. We are beginning to understand the connection between healthy soil and healthy people. We are beginning to make choices and invest in good, healthful and local whole foods as part of our health *insurance.* Lifestyles are adjusting to choose values of cooking, gardening, and eating together. It’s a refreshing shift in our community’s way of life.
Springtime in Michigan is an easy time to re-visit your own commitment to living hyper-local for your health. A few popular ideas, if you haven’t considered them already include joining a Community Supported Agriculture program and perhaps cultivating your first herb and vegetable garden.
Beyond gardening, what about learning about the wild plants that live in your yard, neighborhood or nearby fields and forests? The land around us offers many different plants that can be used as wild foods and herbal preparations to keep us well, and spring is an excellent time to learn to forage – There’s nothing more hyper local or healthy!
First course: Re-wilding the Salad
Violet leaves and flowers (Viola spp), dandelion greens and wild chives mix together well for this flavorful, spring salad of bitter greens. While the wild chives can be found in the wooded areas near your home, you may find these greens as close as your own lawn — don’t mow these *weeds!*
Assuming you haven’t sprayed your yard with chemicals, these plants can be eaten and are highly nutritious. Don’t be scared off by the bitterness found in the dandelion – the greens are not only packed with Vitamin C, but the bitterness is exactly what our Americanized diets of salt and sweet need.
Bitter greens like dandelion help the stomach in digestion by increasing bile production and it’s a good for the liver, too. We need to integrate more of these flavors back into our processed diets. The violet greens do not offer the strong bitter profile the dandelion green does – it is a sweeter green, with a bright flavor similar to purslane, but not as strong. It, too, is packed with Vitamin C.
The violet flowers – both white and purple are both beautiful and add a splash of color to the salad. They are slightly sweet and can be ever so peppery. They are very fun for children to pick with their little hands.
To harvest – Simply pick the leaves and flowers by hand, and trim the chives with scissors. To ensure maximum sweetness in the dandelion greens, harvest in the cool morning before it gets too hot (same rules apply for all salad greens) and choose the smaller, tender leavers before the plant goes to flower.
Rinse the greens in a water bath and gently dry in a tea towel if you don’t have a salad spinner. Don’t wash the flowers – they will wilt. Top the wild harvested greenery with a zingy lemon-balsamic vinaigrette.
Perfect alone or topped with anchovies for that added flavor and protein. Pairs well with a crisp white wine. I might reach for a local Michigan Riesling.
Main Course: Wildcrafted Nettle Risotto
But what we probably didn’t learn is how nutritious the nettle is! Nettles have great virtues as a wild edible food that nourish the body with plenty of vitamins and minerals. Nettles are very nutrient dense; rich Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, cobalt, copper, potassium, B-complex vitamins – even protein. And they are extremely high in chlorophyll.
Look out, spinach. Pop-eye’s got a new superfood.
In seeking out the nettle, go on spring-time (April-June) hunts in areas of nutrient-rich, damp soil. One can often find them in areas that are adjacent to rivers, streams and lakes, or along drainage areas. Take care to know the area from which you are harvesting and it’s history of use — try to avoid areas adjacent or downstream from large factories and farms.
Wear your harvesting gloves and long pants! They don’t call them *stinging* nettles for nothing! The stinging sensation and hive-like bumps that can occur from handling the nettle are caused from the hair-like needles found along the stem and leaves, and the sensation is similar to rolling in fiberglass.
Fortunately, the nettles will lose (most all) their stinging properties as they dry or are cooked (steamed or sauteed). Choose smaller leaves before the plant goes to flower mid-summer.
Once harvested, nettles can be used either fresh or dry.
If you plan on drying the nettles for use later in the season, prep them by chopping them into large pieces, taking care not to smash the fragile, fresh plant material. And do this immediately upon harvesting – you want to dry the plant in a vibrant state. You don’t want to let them wilt or deteriorate in your hot car on on the back counter.
To dry, spread them out onto racks (screens are easy for this) and let them dry completely before storing them in glass jars. If they are not completely dry before storage, they will most likely mold.
The dried leaves can be enjoyed year round added to soups and brewed as infusions for drinking. The infusion should be left to steep overnight as to best extract the minerals of this plant. The flavor can be a bit swampy to some, and blending the nettle infusion with a choice of green tea, jasmine tea, oatstraw and/or red clover makes it less “swampy.” Add a bit of honey to sweeten to taste and it is a refreshing, nourishing beverage that should be consumed daily.
Fresh nettles can easily replace spinach in recipes that call for the greens. They can be lightly cooked and added to soups, egg scrambles, quiches, or other similar recipes. Bon Appetit!
Wildcrafted Nettle & Michigan Morel Risotto
What You Need:
1/4 pound young nettles (about 3 big handfuls – it will wilt like spinach)
12 oz risotto/arborio rice
1 onion, chopped
4 Tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dry Michigan white wine (an extra glass for the chef)
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 oz grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup chopped fresh Michigan morels (if lucky) or fresh shitakes
¼ cup chopped, fresh parsley
Salt, pepper to taste
- Heat the stock in a large saucepan.
- Wash the nettle leaves. Blanch for 2 minutes in boiling salted water, drain and chop very finely. Set aside to add at the end.
- Cook onion and morels gently in half the butter in a large saucepan for a few minutes until tender.
- Add rice and cook over a slightly higher heat for 2 minutes while stirring. Pour in the wine, deglazing the pan. Cook, uncovered, until all the wine has evaporated, then add about 1 cup boiling hot stock; leave the risotto to cook, stirring occasionally and adding about 1/2 cup boiling stock at intervals as the rice absorbs the liquid.
- After about 14 – 15 minutes’ cooking time the rice will be tender but still have a little ‘bite’ left in it when tested. Add the prepared nettles and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring.
- Take off the heat and stir in the remaining butter which will melt and make the rice look glossy;
- Sprinkle with the freshly grated Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley, and add salt and pepper to taste. Stir gently and serve immediately.