02 March 2010

urtica dioica polenta

It's birdies by morning, and froggies by night. All things are growing, cultivated and wild. Thanks to some of my friends, I discovered the Fat of the Land blog recently. A fellow after my own heart, taking local food to the next level: foraging. One of my favorite food books is The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, in which the narrator spends a year hunting, fishing and foraging for the ingredients to a 3-day, 45-course Thanksgiving feast, all from recipes in Auguste Escoffier's 1903 culinary cornerstone, Le Guide Culinaire. 

Both blog and book take the natural world and  indigenous foodstuffs and pay them a wonderful compliment: cuisine. Both also take on invasive species: Steven goes after English Sparrows and European Starlings in the Scavenger's Guide, looking to take out a few of the little bastards and make a tasty dish in the process; Langdon is currently busy acquiring hunting rifle skills, looking to make some gumbo with as many of the Eastern Gray Squirrel's population as he can. Sadly, while Washington State Fish and Wildlife wholly endorse his quest, it is illegal to hurl projectiles of any sort at wildlife of any type within Puget Sound cities of a certain size. We have plenty right here in Blaine; he can come and visit any time. I'm not very good with my slingshot. Yet. Anyone/thing going after invasives, particularly when the bastards can be repurposed, rather than wasted, cheers me greatly.

At any rate, I've been reveling in this two-month early spring and getting all worked up about the prospect of eating fresh food again. Hence: NETTLES! It seems urtica dioica madness has infected everyone--we Northwesterners LOVE spring, no matter how mild the winter. So, thanks to FOTL and also my friend Jodie, I finally did something about it. Elli Dog and I went for a walk down the road and checked along Dakota Creek, and then along a tributary. Jackpot! 

We spent perhaps 15 minutes snipping off and collecting nettle tops (well, Elli spent it sniffing around for deer), and then ambled along back home with a stop at Giles Pond for a swim. For Elli.

Once home, I trimmed the leaves off of their stems with scissors and steamed them briefly. 

I then fried up some nice thick pepper bacon from Andal's Custom Meats in Mount Vernon, removed it from the pan when it was crispy, and made polenta with the fond. When the polenta was nearly done cooking, I stirred in a good handful of Parmesan, a knob of butter and about a third of my steamed nettles. While that sat aside, I warmed up the bacon again, threw in some garlic and the rest of the nettles. I grilled some white king salmon as an accompaniment, and piled it all into a bowl. Food photographer I am not, but it tasted freaking awesome, and looked beautiful--bright sunshine yellow polenta, deep green nettles, pink-red bacon and golden white salmon. Recipe link is below on the left.

Nettle Polenta
6-10 oz nettles
4.5 oz Pepper Bacon (a nice, thick cut, if you can get it)
3 3/4 c Water
pinch Baking Soda
3/4 t Salt
3/4 c Coarse-ground Cornmeal
2 T Butter
2 oz Parmesan, shredded
2-3 cloves Garlic, minced

-Wearing gloves, use scissors to trim all nettle leaves off of the stem, and put into top of steamer basket.
-Steam over boiling water for 1-2 minutes. If you don't have a basket or insert, just blanch leaves briefly in salted boiling water and then drain well. Spread nettles out so that they can cool and stop cooking. Don't shock them in cold water. 
-Slice bacon into 1/4" strips, or finer if the bacon is thin. Crisp in a 2 or 3-quart pot over medium heat. Turn heat down if bacon or goodies on the bottom of the pan are beginning to burn. When it's cooked to your liking, set bacon aside to drain. 
-If there is a lot of fat in pan, drain most of it off. While pan is still hot, add water and stir to loosen goodies (fond) from the pan. Bring to boil.
-When the water is boiling, add salt and baking soda. Just a teensy bit of soda is all you need (see note).
-Slowly stir polenta into boiling water, and boil, stirring constantly, for one minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
-After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any potential lumps, and be sure to scrape down bottom and sides of the pan. Put the cover back on, and let simmer, extremely gently, for another 25 minutes. 
-Take perhaps a third of your steamed nettles, and slice them up.
-Remove polenta from heat and stir in sliced nettles, butter and parmesan. Add a little of your bacon, if you like. Set aside for a minute.
-Put a small amount of oil or butter in a saute pan and place over medium heat. When pan is warm, put bacon and garlic in together. Warm gently so that garlic doesn't get burned and bitter. After about a minute, add nettles and saute just until warmed.
-Spoon polenta into bowls, and top with sauteed bacon and nettles. Serve with shaved parmesan and fresh cracked pepper. And grilled king salmon. Or chicken. Or whatever you like.

Note: This polenta is unusual, in that it isn't stirred continually while cooking. The baking soda helps to break down the corn's starch and protein more evenly and easily, and wouldn't hurt in any polenta recipe, but helps particularly in this one. Too much soda will make a gluey, soapy-tasting glop. Make sure that the heat is very low. The polenta should just be letting free wisps of steam. If it is bubbling or sputtering after 10 minutes, the heat may be too high, so keep a close eye on it, or make a ring of wadded-up foil to lift the pan above the burner (or use that nice old asbestos pad that has been around forever). Italian grandmothers everywhere can hate me, but I learned it in Cook's Illustrated. If you don't want Italian grandmothers to hate you, you are free to stir it the whole 20-30 minutes. See if I care.


  1. What flavor would you say nettles approximate? It looks, as they say, effing delish; and the cooked nettles look like a nice place to take a nap

  2. hmm...like spinach, perhaps? But buttery, and a little more herbaceous. I love me some sauteed spinach, but I have decided I love me nettles more. Not as soft as spinach, but rather less body than, say, chard does. I've still got some left over, and they are going into my eggs tomorrow morning.