Article and Recipe Contributed by C. Jodlowski.
I wandered through a cathedral of hardwoods, gazing up, mouth agape, searching for a branch. Not just any branch – a very specific branch. A branch with enough length to keep a 5 pound bag beyond arm’s length from the trunk. Enough girth to hold said bag plus anything trying to get into it. And it had to be low enough that I could actually get a rope up over it. It seemed easy enough. Except that we were camped in a stand of old growth forest where pillar-like trunks reached beyond 70 feet before topping out. And so there I was, in 700,000 acres of forest, unable to find a branch.
My boys and I were on a scouting trip for bear and since it was our fervent hope that we were, in fact, in bear country it seemed prudent to hoist our food out of reach for the night. Except it wasn’t turning out to be quite that easy and I was turning over the odds that not hanging the food might bring in more than just the sign we’d been searching for.
Wandering no particular pattern for a while I spotted a younger tree that had been bent by heavy snow load and never straightened back up. Focused on that tree to make sure it didn’t suddenly make up its mind to stand up straight as I approached, I hustled my way through the low ground cover, dropped the bag and started to fiddle with the rope.
While I stood tying an anchor to the line to give it some weight, my shins started to itch. Then itch and burn. It was as if I’d been attacked by a battalion of mosquitoes all at once. Still fumbling with the rope, I started to alternate tying and rubbing my legs. Rubbing, tying, scratching, tying. Then less tying and more scratching. I squatted, raking my fingernails over my shins and scanning the ground under the vegetation for whatever was biting me. Nothing. And now I was itchy and confused and my hands were starting to itch as well. Bent over scratching, scanning and now swearing, I realized I was face to face with the problem. It wasn’t mosquitos or flies or ants. I stood and looked around me. I was standing in a sea of shin-high stinging nettles.
I’d been so focused on “looking up” I’d ignored the equally important “looking down” and wandered my way into a nettle patch. With their delayed fuse, they’d let me get far enough in before making me aware of my mistake. Now I was standing there, still needing to get the bag up and needing to walk around more to do it. I pulled my socks up and pretended I had some ability to put my mind over the matter. When I was done I tried my best to follow the path I’d taken in where the plants were already beaten down.
Thankfully, the sting doesn’t last long. I got back to camp and told my sons what I’d just been through, expecting some extra thanks for having risked life and limb for their well being. Instead, my older son offered excitedly “You can eat those! Can we pick some?”
The second question I’d ask after learning you can actually eat these things is “how?” Surely it’s some painstaking process involving tweezers and a magnifying glass. I say “the second question” because the first question is, of course, “why?” Why would someone, after going through what I’d just been through, finally relieved of their burning itch, wonder “. . . but how do they taste?” Yet I now found myself pondering the same thing.
The next morning we grabbed a spare bag and a multi-tool and using the pliers, plucked leaf after leaf off a scattering of plants like a game of botanical Operation. We packed up camp and headed home having found no sign of bear but taking with us instead about a pound of noxious leaves.
The magical thing about stinging nettles is how easily they transform from “dangerous adversary” to “nutritious vegetable” and then “delicious side dish.” Treating the bag like it was full of toxic waste, I cautiously opened it and used tongs to drop batches of leaves into a pot of boiling water. After just a few minutes they emerged as injurious as a bag of baby spinach and can then be used in just about the same ways. A bit. . .meatier. . . without that dry-tongue after-feel spinach often has. Popeye would be proud.
One of my favorite parts of a good steak house are the sides. Namely, the creamed spinach. So it stands to reason that if you’re going to make wild steak – venison, elk, moose – that your sides should be wild as well. Here’s one way to do that.
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Creamed Stinging Nettles
- 1 pound stinging nettle leaves
- 1 stick of butter
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 5 T all purpose flour
- 2 cups milk
- ½ cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
- 2 t kosher salt
- ½ t white pepper
- 1 t paprika
- ½ t ground nutmeg
- 2 t dried thyme
- 2 Cups panko bread crumbs
- ½ cup of parmesan cheese
- ½ stick of butter, melted
- 1 t kosher salt
- 1 t ground black pepper
- Set your broiler to 350
- Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.
- Wearing gloves, pick over and clean your nettle leaves to remove stems, bugs, dirt, etc.
- When the water is boiling, using tongs, drop a bunch of leaves into the water and let boil for 3-4 minutes per batch. Remove each batch to a colander to drain and cool and add another batch to the water. When all of the leaves have been boiled and cooled, remove from the colander and roughly chop the cooked leaves. (The stinging properties have been neutralized and you can now safely handle the leaves.)
To make the sauce:
- In a 10” saute pan over low heat, melt the stick of butter. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft. Whisk in the flour and continue to stir for 5 minutes. Whisk in the milk a half cup at a time, stirring until each batch is incorporated before adding the next.
- When all the milk has been added, whisk in the grated cheese, salt, white pepper, nutmeg, paprika and thyme.
- Fold in the chopped nettle leaves and stir until the leaves and sauce have been equally distributed and remove the pan from the heat then smooth out so it’s evenly spread out in the pan.
To make the crumb topping:
- Add the panko, grated cheese, salt and pepper to a bowl and blend with a fork. Drizzle in the melted butter and stir until all ingredients are evenly mixed.
- Shake the panko mixture over the pan of nettles and sauce. Try to shake it out as evenly as possible without using utensils as that evens out the rough texture that will brown the best.
- Place the pan under the broiler watching carefully until the crumbs brown and remove (be careful, as the pan handle will have heated up). Serve out of the pan.
About the Author
Chris came to hunting later in life than most, but over the last 20 years he’s developed it from pastime to passion to way of life. He now hunts and cooks just about everything a season will allow and is always looking for the next adventure. Along with hunting, he fishes and wanders New York’s Hudson Valley and beyond gathering wild and regionally grown produce, living his belief that the very best food is local food. He enjoys spending time outdoors with his boys, teaching them self-reliance and sharing with them the joy of sitting down to a well-earned meal.