On the second to the last Sunday of January, the first nettles appeared at the Sebastopol Farmers Market. They were offered by Triple T Farms of Santa Rosa, at $2 a bunch (about 2 ½ ounces) or $5 for three bunches. A single bunch is enough for potato-nettle soup, a six-egg frittata or one batch of nettle risotto.
The same day I got the nettles, the air was saturated with the promise of spring, a floral warmth at the center of winter’s chill. There’s more daylight than there was a month ago, and our local hens — the ones who live in small coops all over the county — have begun laying again. We are egg rich, or nearly so, and soon there will be other early spring treasures, the first asparagus, the first green garlic, artichokes, English peas and fresh favas.
When we eat seasonally, nature provides what we need at any specific time. In late summer, for example, watermelon cools us when we most need cooling. As winter evolves into spring, nettles serve as an early tonic that helps us shake off winter’s fog, whether it’s simply the sleepiness most of us feel on dark days or something worse, like a cold or flu.
Nettles are packed with nutrients, including vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, potassium and an array of micronutrients. If you are recovering from an illness, you can make a simple tonic of nettles by stirring the leaves into chicken stock, as described in the recipe for nettle risotto, and then sipping the warm stock, with or without a big squeeze of lemon juice. You can also, if you like congee (rice porridge), add nettles for a delicious and healthful boost.
Nettles grow wild throughout Sonoma County, typically along creek beds and similarly damp places. Be sure to protect your hands with gloves when you gather them and don’t use the ones that you find near a well-traveled road, as they will be saturated with exhaust fumes.
The late Nancy Skall of Middleton Gardens, who was a phenomenal farmer, used to take issue with my recipes for nettles. I always blanched them in boiling water and then discarded the water, which she felt was tossing out some of their valuable nutrients. Heat — either wet or dry — mitigates the stinging quality and that was how I always dealt with them. Here, I plunge the nettles into simmering chicken stock so nothing is lost. Every time I make this, I think of her and wish I would have been able to prepare it for her before she passed away.
Makes 3 to 4 servings
4 cups homemade chicken stock
2 bunched (about 5 ounces) fresh nettles
4 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 tablespoons butter
1 large or 2 medium shallots, minced
2 cups Italian rice, preferably Vialone Nano or Carnaroli
— Kosher salt
¾ cup dry white wine
— Grated zest of 1 lemon
6 ounces mozzarella fresca, torn into small pieces
2 tablespoons creme fraiche
— Lemon wedges, for garnish
Pour the chicken stock into a medium saucepan and set over medium heat.