CSA 2010: Needle Lane Farms
For the uninitiated, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) are like subscription plans for local food—usually vegetables, but in some regions, you can get CSAs for meat, seafood, dairy, frozen produce, or even prepared foods. Generally, you pay for the whole year or growing season before it begins and then every week, you pick up a pre-packed box that contains a selection of whatever’s in season. After an extraordinarily helpful consultation with Kim Bayer of The Farmer’s Marketer (which I highly recommended to anyone in the Ann Arbor area who’s interested in exploring their options for buying locally-produced food; for $25, she will distill her vast knowledge about the dizzying number of options and all their idiosyncrasies into an hour-long “matchmaking” session tailored to your wants and needs—it probably saved me 15+ hours of research), I decided to get a “single” share from Needle Lane Farms for the 2010 growing season.
The evidence about the environmental impact and health benefits of local, organic agriculture vs. industrial-scale conventional is mixed, so I’m not subscribing to a CSA because it’s morally or nutritionally superior. And I’m not convinced the stuff tastes better either—I’m still learning how to get all the grit out of the lettuce and acclimate myself to the occasional worms and bugs that are inevitable in unsprayed produce. My main motives are 1) to try things I can’t get from a normal grocery store and 2) to be forced to eat a lot of fresh vegetables while they’re in season, which improves my well-being whether or not the veggies are healthier than their conventional analogs. Kim recommended Needle Lane because they grow a lot of novel things, unlike farms that focus more on producing mostly familiar, popular crops. True to form, the first box of the season included the package of stinging nettles and handy warning/info sheet pictured above.
Nettles are often considered a “weed,” but that’s a troublesome term. Like “dirt,’” it refers less to any inherent properties of the object than to the context where it appears. If dirt is “matter out of place,” meaning what might be dirt in one context (sand in your clothes) is totally appropriate in another (sand on the beach), weeds are essentially plants out of place—e.g. grass may be the only thing many people want growing in their lawns, but when it shows up in their flower beds, it’s a weed, and often an especially tricky one to remove. But there are also things—like soil—that count as “dirt” no matter where they are, and nettles are that kind of weed, along with plants like thistles and dandelions. Even when the New York Botanical Garden deliberately grew dandelions for their recent tribute to Emily Dickinson, NPR reported that they had to “keep the staff gardeners from uprooting the tiny yellow flowering weeds.”
It’s not an issue of the usefulness or prettiness of the plant—many “weeds” are edible and beautiful, like the flowering “invasive species” that park services staff and volunteers do battle with. And it can’t just be an issue of thorniness, because obviously: roses. The main thing that seems to make something inherently weedy rather than contingently weedy seems to be whether it’s cultivated. Not the specific plant—many people welcome volunteer plants in their yards or gardens as long as they’re a species someone cultivates somewhere, but if the plan qua plant—i.e. not a nettle, but Nettle—isn’t deliberately grown anywhere, it seems to be a “weed” even if you eat it or sell it just like a “crop.” Nettles have been harvested for human consumption for centuries, but as far as I can tell, it’s almost always foraged instead of farmed. People don’t plant it or encourage it, it just grows… well, “like a weed.”
According to an article in the Telegraph about last year’s Stinging Nettle Eating competition in Dorset, where people eat the leaves raw, even people who consider the plants edible tend think of them as an “infestation”:
The contest began more than 20 years ago when two customers at Marshwood’s 16th century Bottle Inn argued over who had the worst infestation of stinging nettles. "One of them said, ‘I’ll eat any nettle of yours that’s longer than mine"’ said Rory Macleod, 34, the pub landlord. "And so they had a competition. They’re both dead now.”
Making Them Edible
The Telegraph article goes on to explain why eating them raw has turned into such a big macho contest:
The plant properly known as urtica docia is a nutritional powerhouse, rich in iron, potassium, calcium and abundant vitamins. They have been used in traditional English stews, teas and beers for centuries, while the Italians cherish them for pesto and the Scandinavians make a knockout nettle soup called Nasselsoppa. The complications come with eating the things raw. Urtica is covered in thousands of microscopic hypodermic needles each filled with boric acid. On contact the needles break, causing the acid to flood over and burn the skin.
Wikipedia contests that explanation, claiming the nature of the toxins is still a matter of debate and may vary between species, but likely includes formic acid, serotonin, and histamines. So the “stinging” effect is either an acid burn, serotonin-induced dermatitis, an allergic reaction, or some combination of the three. Whatever the cause, cooking eliminates it. Most of the recipes I encountered called for blanching them in boiling water for a minute or two and then removing the leaves from the stems. At that point, they’re basically like any other hearty cooking green. The blanching liquid can be reserved and used in soup, consumed on its own as a hot or cold tea, or used to water plants. Some people even harvest nettles specifically to make tea and throw out the greens.
I decided to make a soup, and the first few recipes I found were all basically starch-thickened pureed cream soups—one using potato, one using oats, and one using rice. I didn’t have any potatoes or oats and didn’t feel like waiting for rice to cook, so I decided to improvise a flour-thickened version starting with a basic roux infused with a couple of shallots and a bunch of spring onions that also came in that week’s share. I also added a parcel of cooking greens because 1/2 lb nettles doesn’t actually yield all that much edible material (according to the CSA newsletter, the greens were a mix of Kale, Tat Soi, Bok Choy, Swiss Chard, Chinese Cabbage, and Lambsquarter). You could use more nettles, or substitute spinach, or use any combination of cooking greens. The recipe also works with other vegetables. I’ve made similar soups with a few cups of shredded zucchini or broccoli florets with great results, and I bet it would also be good with cauliflower or mushrooms or corn or maybe even root vegetables. It’s basically a nice way to turn a vegetable into something hearty and satisfying enough to serve as a meal, and the precise amount of vegetable matter—and most of the other ingredients—isn’t that important.
The msg and nutmeg are both optional. I tasted it without them, and it was good, but I felt like it needed a little extra boost. If you’re wary about msg (though I explain here why there’s no real reason to be), you could substitute nutritional yeast or parmesan cheese, or just leave it out.
Recipe: Cream of Nettle Soup
- a couple quarts of water or stock for blanching nettles (reserve the liquid)
- 4-6 T. butter
- 4-6 T. flour
- a few handfuls of chopped alliums—shallots, onion, garlic, whatever you like
- 1/2 lb stinging nettles (weight includes the stems)
- an additional ~3 cups of hearty greens (kale, chard, spinach, mustard greens, or more nettles)
- 4 cups reserved nettle-blanching liquid
- if using water instead of stock for nettles, 4 t. bouillon
- 1 cup milk (or cream)
- a pinch of msg (optional, or sub. 1 T.+ nutritional yeast or 1 oz finely grated parmesan instead)
- 1/2 t. grated nutmeg
- salt and pepper to taste
1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the nettles, using gloves or tongs or the container they came in to protect yourself from the needles. Blanche for 1-2 minutes, and then drain and remove to a cutting board (no need to shock them with ice water since they’re just going in a soup). Filter the blanching liquid through a coffee filter or paper towel and reserve.
2. Remove the leaves from the stems, which are tough and fibrous.
3. Melt the butter and sweat the shallots/onions/garlic until they’re golden. Add the flour, stir well to make a thick paste and cook until it begins to brown slightly. This should smell pretty amazing.
4. Gradually add about 4 cups of the nettle-blanching water, which should still be pretty hot, stirring continuously. At first, the liquid will incorporate into the roux as the starches expand, creating growing mass of paste, but after about a cup, it should start to loosen into a creamy broth.
5. Add the greens, or whatever vegetable you’re using and simmer until tender (10 minutes for spinach, 15 minutes for heartier greens, up to 20-25 minutes for broccoli florets).
6. Puree—I used an immersion blender, but a regular blender or food processor would work just as well.
7. Stir in the milk and season, heat for another minute or two or just until almost boiling, and then remove from heat. Season to taste.