After Sally was born, people brought food. I remember a lasagna, a batch of chocolate chip cookies. And in particular, I remember my friend Ish's nettle soup.
It was not the first thing to disappear, I will admit. Stinging nettles? That was a plant I had learned to identify on a Canadian island as a kid, walking through along the meadow path with my hands held high over my head. We learned to spot them quickly; one brush with a leaf and you'd have a red, burning, nettle-stung hand.
I knew they were edible, though I'd never tried them. But Ish said her mom cooked with them all the time, and that this was her version of her mother's stinging nettle soup.
It was delicious. I'm still not sure what was in there, but it was rich and creamy, flecked with green and spotted with kernels of sweet late summer corn. We devoured it after the first bite, and Ish told me later she thought of it because nettles are especially good for mother's milk. I loved it. And then I forgot about nettles until I met Fiamma Straneo the other day.
A friend introduced us. Fiamma lives in Falmouth, but she grew up in Italy—in the northern part, in Milan. Growing up she ate nettles all the time—her mother made frittatas and folded them into gnocchi and tortellini and ravioli. She found them when she moved to Seattle in the early 90s, and again when she came to work in Woods Hole. The specimens you see up there are from a patch downtown, on the outskirts of a sunny garden. Fiamma took me foraging, and they were just poking up after all the cold and rain. For the next month or so, she says, they'll be perfect. (Once they've gone to flower you don't want to eat them, and then you can pick fresh shoots again in the fall.) Fiamma will be making the same frittatas and pastas her mother did, and a nettle soup with Parmesan and bread.
You do have to take some precautions to avoid a sting. Fiamma says you want to wear gloves to pick nettles and while you're washing them. But once they're cooked—and she thinks even once they're washed—the little stingers dissolve and the greens taste like a richer, more pungent spinach. They're full of iron and sulphur and vitamins A, B and C, and people say a good dose cures everything from arthritis to hay fever.
Fiamma makes her recipes by memory. But her friend Jess published a wonderful story about eating nettles with her and a recipe for Bucatini with Nettle-Pecan Pesto, which sounds delicious. And I've had and loved Alice Water's Wild Nettle Frittata. From Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall comes a Ricotta and Nettle Gnocchi that sounds just like Fiamma's. And finally, from edible Madison, a creamy nettle soup that with a handful of corn sounds just like the version Ish made.
I haven't found any wild nettles in Wellfleet. Ish foraged hers from her mother's house, out in the Berkshires, and Fiamma's patch is in Woods Hole. But now that Fiamma's reminded me how delicious these stinging leaves are, I've got my eyes peeled. You?