Spring arrived early in Portland and the landscape is changing rapidly. I had planned to harvest some of our violets to make violet syrup. I passed by them every day, but I didn’t take the time to gather them. Now they are gone. This week I will try to monitor our local elm trees, so I can harvest some elm flowers before they disappear too.
I am a little obsessed with capturing the ephemeral. I feel compelled to record evidence of these fleeting moments. The way the backyard plum blossoms fall like snow. The white blossoms only last a few days. This desire is what drew me to art/photography. I try to keep a trusty camera in my bag to provide a way to record the necessary evidence. For me, a good deal of the photographic process seems to be setting up the shot and waiting. Waiting for the light to change, for a cloud to pass. It may be a bird flying across a cloud, a cloud that I found reflected in a puddle. The bird flies away, the water evaporates, the light changes, but if I open the shutter at just the right time, the moment lives on.
I like the ephemeral qualities of food/ingredients too. Some things like the autumn saffron crocuses Mr. Graham planted in the backyard require us to pay attention. In order to collect the stigmas, or threads, you have to be out there every day and look. Because tomorrow will be too late. If you are present, you will be rewarded with gorgeous threads of saffron, with berries warmed by the sun, with sweet and fragrant arugula flowers.
Spring brings more than just flowers. Spring is green. Ephemeral spring greens like chickweed and young stinging nettles are full of nutrients. A couple weeks ago I was happy to secure a big bunch of nettles from Groundworks Organics. Our yard is a bit too small for nettles, so I am happy that they are easy to find at our farmers market. Young spring nettles are delicate and fresh, but are also packed with minerals and iron. This time of year is about consuming chlorophyll. Every meal needs to have some young green in it. We have a few greens in our garden now: Rapunzel, radicchio, and kale. If I am willing to wander a bit, there is miner’s lettuce and chickweed to be found. Soon our fava shoots, lettuce, chard, and pea greens will be ready.
Nettles require a little work in order to safely consume them. Have you ever been stung by stinging nettles? I have and the hives are a bit intense, but often go away quickly. The sting in stinging nettles is from their trichromes, the silica hairs that are like tiny hypodermic needles ready to release a blend of formic acid, serotonin precursors, and histamines. The trichromes are easily dissolved by blanching the young leaves in boiling water for a few minutes or by infusing them in alcohol for a couple of days.
Stinging nettles should be harvested early, when they are still tender. Nettle leaves from plants that are over a foot tall should not be consumed, as they may upset the stomach and/or kidneys. Stinging nettles have anti-inflammatory and anti-rheumatic properties. The seeds are full of minerals too. The ground seeds can be used as a seasoning. Nettles have a strong grassy, mineral-forward flavor. I think they pair well with eggs and goat/sheep milk cheese. We like to make pesto with them. Blanch nettles to remove the sting and add to a frittata or risotto. I think the combination of nettles and horseradish is amazing. Sarah Minnick, pizza queen of Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, makes a pizza with Briar Rose Maia cheese, Point Reyes Toma, pancetta, nettles, and horseradish. Perfection.
With our recent haul of stinging nettles we made a pint of garlicky nettle hazelnut pesto and some stinging nettle snaps (schnapps). One of the best ways to capture the flavor of ephemeral botanicals is to make snaps, or a vodka infusion. This process is perfect for tiny harvests or found bounty. We can capture the flavors of spring or summer to enjoy in winter. The options are endless. Wouldn’t it be fun to share a flight of snaps with friends? Some ideas: Juicy red raspberries, thimbleberries or Douglas fir tips from a hike, cilantro or green coriander seeds, beets, or even some particularly sweet and fragrant carrots.
This was my first time making stinging nettle snaps and I am pleased with the results. The flavor is of fresh mowed grass with earthy mineral notes and a slightly bitter edge. This snaps changes color over time: It starts out vibrant emerald green, then it deepens to a reddish brown or black. I like to serve it cold with food. It adds deep flavor to a bloody mary, especially with the addition of horseradish. It also adds a mysterious element to a negroni.
Stinging Nettle Snaps
This recipe can easily be scaled up or down. I used a quart jar, but it can be scaled down to a pint or up to a gallon or more, depending on the amounts of nettle and vodka you have on hand. This tipple starts out vibrant emerald and will turn reddish brown/black over time. This snaps is wonderful with a meal or to stimulate digestion before a meal.
1 quart mason jar with a lid, a chopstick, a coffee dripper with coffee filter or a mesh strainer and a basket filter, gloves to protect your hands
2 handfuls of young stinging nettle leaves and stems, rinsed and patted dry
vodka, 80 proof, you will need a little less than a quart
There is no need to blanch the nettles to make this easy infusion. Wearing gloves, pack the nettles into the mason jar until the jar is three quarters full. Add vodka to fill the jar. Use a chopstick to press the nettles down and stir a bit to remove any air bubbles. Add more vodka, if necessary. Cover the jar with a lid. Let the mixture infuse for 2 to 4 days. The mixture should taste of grass and minerals.
Strain the infusion through a coffee filter. I like use a ceramic pour over coffee dripper with a cone filter, but a mesh strainer and basket filter work well too.
Store the stinging nettle snaps in an airtight jar or bottle. The snaps can be consumed right away, but it is best to let it sit for a month or two before enjoying, as this will soften some of the rougher edges. The finished snaps should last for a few years, but is best consumed within a year. It will eventually darken due to the iron content of the nettles. I like to store my snaps in the freezer so I can easily serve it cold. Whether ice cold or room temperature, serve snaps up in a shot, cordial, or aquavit glass.
I couldn't resist adding a little bit of stinging nettles to one of my favorites: a negroni.
Makes one drink
½ ounce gin, a London dry is the usual, but the honey based Barr Hill gin is excellent here too
½ ounce nettle snaps (recipe above)
½ ounce sweet vermouth, my favorite here is Dolin Rouge
½ ounce Aperol or Campari
In a mixing glass or a wide mouth pint jar stir all the ingredients together until drink is cold. Strain and serve in a ice filled rocks glass. Garnish with an orange wheel. I also like to rub an orange peel around the rim of the glass.