Blame my coastal childhood spent picking berries and digging clams, but I’ve always been interested in gleaning whatever food I can from the landscape.
I even have a survival guide to edible plants but never really had the courage to put it to the test. Broadening my culinary horizons while allaying fears I have of poisoning myself, forager Louis Jeandin invariably offers something new and interesting to try apart from the complement of wild mushrooms he sells weekly at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market.
For the past month, he’s had stinging nettles, essentially a weed that I’ve seen featured on some high-end restaurant menus. It’s supposedly on par with spinach and full of vitamins, minerals and amino acids, even enzymes that serve as a “vegetarian” rennet for cheesemaking.
And this year for the first time, Louis had ramps. You heard it right: ramps. No doubt like many Oregonians, I was under the impression that this wild relative of leeks only populated the East Coast, where many a chef fawns over them in spring.
Louis says he found these in proximity to the Rogue River and at first mistook them for lily of the valley, until he noticed that they never blossomed. The bulbs increase in size, of course, as the season goes on, and the greens wither away.
When they still have green tops, which suggests using them like a green onion, ramps impart an interesting flavor somewhat like a sweet shallot or onion without the sulfurous sting. Without the greens, I decided to use ramps more like cloves of garlic.
And because I also obtained some stinging nettles from Louis, pesto seemed an obvious move. I blogged before about how pesto can basically contain any herb, aromatic or nut.
The first step required neutralizing the nettles’ sting, which needs only heat. I blanched the nettles in simmering water, for a couple minutes longer than I would for other vegetables, just to be sure. Shocking retained the green color. Then I stripped the leaves from the stems into my food processor and ground them up with the ramps, olive oil and seasoning.
Pine nuts and cheese would have added depth, but because this was bound for a cheesy pizza, I kept the flavor light and herbaceous. The pizza’s main appeal came from porcini and shiitake mushrooms with smoked mozzarella, the pesto serving as a brighter backdrop to the earthy fungi.
I can’t say the pesto was distinctive enough that I’d brave the sting to gather nettles myself. Ramps would be a different story.
Diversity in the kitchen, though, usually is a good thing. And as a cook, it’s a point of pride to transform totally overlooked ingredients for diners’ appreciation. My husband didn’t even slow his chewing for the untested spread.
“Is this pesto,” he asked.
“With stinging nettles and ramps,” I replied.