The other day a friend mentioned to me "Have you noticed the bins of ramps at Whole Foods? I thought they were wild plants!". Well... what can I say. Ramps, along with fiddlehead ferns have caught the imagination of the farmers' market scouring well-heeled foodie crowd in New York. The result of which is that they are no longer foraged but rather farmed. Organically, small-scale for the most part around here. And, commercial scale in California farms that supply to Whole Foods, ergo bins of them. Nevertheless, they are still organic.
My own stand on this situation is ambiguous. I am not entirely thrilled that these previously foraged crops have been caught in a fashionable frenzy and now find their way into every farm conscious restaurant menu around the country and are of course contributing handsomely to the bottom line of everyone in the supply chain from the farms to the stores to the restaurants. However, I take solace in that it is organic still. That many more can enjoy a new food and flavor, possibly diluted in comparison to their wild cousins, but very tasty, is a positive.
Note, I have never had the foraged versions, so I cannot really complain. And, neither will I. Because, while I can take or leave the ramps and the ferns I am rather partial to another previously foraged wonder, Stinging Nettles.
Now, if you were mooching about the country side in UK or Ireland, where they are supposed to be indigenous, you are likely to trip on them fairly often. These herbs love damp and well, few countries were better made for them than those just across the Atlantic. They love soils that have been enriched by animal waste and are often found thriving alongside cattle and pig farms. Which is a wonderful natural balance as the plants carry potent immunity boosters and has potential to aid with taming several health maladies from allergies to the common cold to arthritis.
I cannot vouch for any of the health benefits, although I do subscribe to the common granny idiom that anything bitter or or with a bite usually has something to desirable and necessary for humans. So, I am sure the stinging nettle does carry a ton of antioxidants but it is not my concern.
What I rather like about the nettle is its flavor and how it reminds one of warmer weather. In taste, it is akin to the cucumber with a freshness bursting through and wholly reminiscent of Summer. Besides, unlike several other greens which kind of lose themselves when cooked, the nettle leaves maintain integrity and retain a nice meaty texture, leaving a satisfying bite to eating them.
On the subject of the sting, it really isn't bad to be honest. I have always handled them with bare hands and I do remember last year that I had a whole bush of them. It was just fine. It is more a persistent tingle than a sting and that only when handled over large amounts.
This year, I ordered a bunch, through the good people at
, from the
that looks to be a legit small farm operation (serving high end restaurants being the hallmark of one). I liked them although the ones from the Union Square market were better. I made soup, of course but with red lentils for added comfort and heartiness. I experimented with a couple of other recipes as well. I am really kicked about one of them and it made the cut for the Summer issue of
This is a simple soup. Something that evokes the happiness in its humble ingredients and pays them due respect. No strong notes allowing all the flavors to come together on their own. Nothing fancy. Just everyday food.
Red Lentil and Nettle Soup
3/4 cup red lentils
1/2 red onion, halved lengthwise (I like to leave the onion in chunks for this soup)
4 cloves of garlic
1 cup vegetable stock
1 cup water + more as needed
1 tsp cumin
1 T butter
handful of nettle leaves, picked and washed
salt to taste
Over low heat, melt the butter and then toast the cumin seeds till fragrant. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for a few minutes until tender.
Add the lentils and toss till they are all coated with butter and cumin. Season with salt.
Pour in the stock and water and bring to a boil on high heat. Lower the heat to medium, cover and cook until lentils are soft, about 10 minutes. Add more water if too thick.
Sprinkle the nettle leaves and let them cook for a few minutes until they wilt and feel tender. They will no longer have the 'sting'.
Serve warm with a teeny bit of butter and perhaps some mint.