Nettles are symbolic of punishment and plague. They are frequently associated with witchcraft and potion making (nettle tincture is supposed to be a tonic for the hay fever and pollen problems common at this time of year) and mentioned when one wants to add a little mystical color to a story (which is how I know they grow wild at Stonehenge). In a Times article last year about hardships faced by the residents of Pikalevo, Russia, bubbling pots of nettle stew are conjured as illustrative evidence of the toughness of the times.
Nettles grow wild like dandelion. The greens have saw-toothed leaves covered in what look like downy strands but turn out to be microscopically thin tubes with an angled end, ready to stab themselves into wandering feet and prodding fingers and to spike intruders with the sting that gives the nettles their familiar name. They need to be cooked to be eaten; once cooked, they are typically used like spinach, which has a similar though tamer flavor. The first time I ate them was about a decade ago at an event where Lidia Bastianich tucked the nettles into ravioli, sauced them simply with butter to let the nettle flavor – mysteriously herbaceous, quietly earthy – show through.
In New York, nettles come into season right about now – or at least I saw my first bunch of the year last week at Berried Treasure’s stand at the Friday market in Union Square – and stick around until almost Thanksgiving.
I know they disappear around that time because I came back from San Francisco last November after eating the best nettle dish I’d ever had – a super-simple plate of seared abalone dressed with a vibrant nettle salsa verde at Daniel Patterson’s restaurant, Coi – and was charged about making it at home. (The nettle salsa verde, anyway, which was one of those sauces/condiments that I knew would taste good on just about anything.) Unfortunately, nettles were gone from the market. A guy at Pfaffenroth, one of the many farms that carry it, said there was too much stuff in the fields at the time to have somebody go out and forage for it, and they’re not the sort of thing that pops up at the grocery store.
When they reappeared last week, I got in touch with Patterson to get the salsa verde recipe and to find out the story behind it.
The chef was in the middle of a brainstorm over what to do with the local elderflowers when I called. He’d gotten as far as making syrup with some, fermenting others. He’s soft-spoken, excitable and erudite. (His essays for the Times Magazine are worth catching up on if you missed them.) But he is unquestionably a chef’s chef. He’s in the kitchen at Coi whenever it’s open, a proposition he acknowledges is a bit insane for a newish father and the mastermind of a suddenly blossoming restaurant group. (He will open two restaurants in the Bay Area in the next year; Plum, which will open first, will be affordablish — $9 to $19 plates — and helmed by Jeremy Fox, the talented chef who recently left Ubuntu.)
The first time he made the herb sauce, it wasn’t at Coi, it wasn’t made with nettles and it didn’t end up on abalone: it was a sauce for a plate of steamed new potatoes, garnished with crunchy salt and wild-onion flowers he picked in his backyard. That was on the menu he made for his wife on Valentine’s Day. They both loved it.
He brought the idea for the sauce to the restaurant, where he turned it into a vehicle for nettles. “Nettles are earthy, they have this funky quality, they are nutty, but they lack sharpness,” he told me, explaining why he blended them in a 3-to-1 ratio with dandelion greens, which, he said, added a “bitterness that is like a seasoning – it gives the salsa verde shape.”
He called the sauce “a nice multi-use idea” that works on grilled chicken and pork chops as well as steamed potatoes or seared abalone. While nettles are what he makes it with at Coi, it started as straight dandelion greens; he said Swiss chard leaves would also work. (Make the leftover stems into pickles.) I’m looking forward to making batches to take to barbecues.
I’ve just moved into a new place, and the kitchen basically unusable. So I don’t have a tested, measured-out recipe to share. I think that’s O.K. in this case, especially since Patterson made one of most eloquent cases for freeing oneself from the strictures of the traditional recipe format in a piece for Food & Wine a few years ago. Here’s what the chef told me, organized in a recipe-ish fashion.
STINGING NETTLE SALSA VERDE
“Mince a little shallot and macerate” – meaning soak – “it in Champagne vinegar for about 20 minutes, to cure it, to take the gassiness out,” Patterson said. Reserve the shallot and vinegar.
“Use three parts nettles to one part dandelion greens. Blanch them, rinse them in a colander and wring out the excess water. You don’t have to be super anal about it.” Be very careful when handling nettles before they’re cooked, O.K.? Thanks.
Chop the greens finely. They should not be pureed; they should have “a nice integrity to them.” Use a sharp knife and take your time.
Combine the shallots and vinegar with the finely chopped greens. Stir in a few chopped caperberries. Taste and adjust. Add lemon juice and olive oil in appealing proportions (i.e., don’t skimp on the oil, and use the good stuff). Taste and adjust. Season with salt. Taste, etc.
Deploy at will. Makes: As much as you make.