Sunday, May 1, 2011

can’t touch this


One balmy August afternoon,  just before my senior year of high school, I broke from my established summertime routine of doing nothing and agreed to go on a hike with a few daredevil guy friends of mine.  Late summer in Southeast Alaska generally boasts prime weather for all manner of outdoorsy endeavors and that day was no exception.  We followed an obscure trail, not far from the Mendenhall glacier, off the beaten path and well into the realm of bear territory.  In what can only be described as youthful naiveté, I put a great deal of faith in the protective services of my (less than) burly hiking companions.

The overwhelming beauty of those pristine surroundings was lost on no one as we traipsed through the woods and up a steep, rocky embankment overhanging an eerily calm, seemingly bottomless glacial pool brimming with the bluest water imaginable.  At the top, we luxuriated in the sun’s warmth while enjoying a bird’s eye view of surrounding treetops in the foreground and mountaintops beyond.  It was one of those rare and perfect days you never forget.  After a few moments spent in silent reverie, the guys unceremoniously stripped down to their plaid flannel boxers (this was Alaska, after all), sidled up to the edge of the cliff and, one by one, leapt into the icy water below.

In my mind’s eye, it must have been a 50-foot drop.  In reality, it was probably closer to 30 feet.  Never in my life have I been so crippled by simultaneous fear and desire.  I stood near the cliff’s edge, gazing down at the craggy rock wall and less than inviting ice bath at its base.  The boys stood by to cheer or perhaps egg me on.  My heart felt as though it were beating out of my chest, my heart.  Jump, jump, jump, demanded the wildly rhythmic pulsing. 

With each passing moment, I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins.  My mind, on the other hand, had a different agenda.  This was long way down, I considered, as I mapped out the various ways in which I would more than likely meet my demise.  I stood at the threshold of that cliff for what seemed like an eternity before accepting the inevitable. 

On the hike back, my friends’ supportive pats on the back did little to console me; their words of encouragement rang like defeat in my ears.  I knew what they were thinking or at least I knew what I was thinking.  Why couldn’t I bring myself to jump?  The question haunted me for years.  It wasn’t until I had a child of my own that an answer occurred to me.  I had taken the road less traveled. 

Mothers are notorious for posing the age old question, ‘If your friends (insert stupidity here), would you do it too?!’  When everyone else jumped off of that cliff, I kept my feet planted firmly on solid ground.  Common sense trumped foolish pride in an impressive showing of early onset maturity.  Not only did I possibly save my life that day (okay, maybe that’s a stretch), but I also managed to defy the teenage stigma of going with the flow. 

So much of what we learn, we learn the hard way.  Take stinging nettles.  At first glance, you have an unassuming leafy green plant.  Upon closer inspection, you’ll find the stem is covered in ruthless little stingers, capable of inflicting tremendous pain should your skin brush up against them.  Unlucky victims of the nettles’ wrath tend to shudder at the recollection of their prickly encounters; the bulk of which are attributed to bouts of adolescent stupidity. 

In Alaska, we have our own brand of stinging plants aptly dubbed Devil’s Club.  Not to be outdone by the nettle, Devil’s Club is bigger, pricklier and harder to avoid.  Spiny hollow stalks grow thicker than broomsticks and the underbelly of their massive leaves are similarly outfitted with needle sharp thorns.  These barbarians of the forest often overtake trails and have a way of presenting themselves just when you’ve lost your footing and are reaching for the nearest branch.  Yowch!  Much like nettles, a painful burning sensation lingers long after the initial sting. 

My first encounter with nettles was a happy one.  Several years ago, while visiting Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, I sampled the St. Pat, a remarkable cheese whose name reflects its springtime production.  The soft, creamy cheese is wrapped in nettles, giving its rind a greenish hue and distinct artichoke flavor.  I was instantly smitten.  Next came nettles tossed with gnocchi, roasted nettles on pizza and nettle lasagna; the latter, compliments of our generous chef friend who is well-attuned to my nettle obsession. 

Said chef friend warned me against the perils of foraging and cooking with nettles and I was sufficiently deterred until this past March, when I came across an alluring recipe for Italian sausage nettle pie, resplendent with mouthwatering photos.  The recipe was the result of a collaboration between local urban forager author, Langdon Cook, of Fat of the Land fame, and renowned pie maven and teacher, Kate McDermott, of Art of the Pie.  I didn’t have the guts to outright beseech my chef friend to prepare this pie for me.  Of course, I subtly hinted once or twice, but alas, he never bit the bait.  It took me a good month to work up the courage to make the pie.  In the meantime, I even dreamt about nettles.

In order to make the pie, I did some urban urban foraging, employing the use of my trusty mobile phone and a helpful search engine.  It was no simple task unearthing those prickly buggers.  I called all over town and finally pieced together enough nettles from two different suppliers.  The nicest bunch came from Marigold and Mint, in Melrose Market, where I also bought Italian sausage and leaf lard (for the crust) from my favorite butcher, Rain Shadow Meats.

Back at home, I dumped three sacks of nettles onto the kitchen table, pulled on two pairs of latex gloves, and got to work removing coarse stems and wilty bits.  To remove their stingers, I blanched the nettles for 3 minutes in boiling water.  And that’s all there was to it.  I emerged from the process unscathed.  The nettles, on the other hand, were rendered stinger-less.


I almost followed Langdon Cook’s recipe to the letter.  I’m pretty sure he used more nettles but then again, that’s why he’s the urban forager and I’m just urban.  The only change I made was to loosely adjust the ingredient quantities to 2/3 of the original.  The recipe for the filling calls for a double pie crust but no crust recipe is given.  With a little sleuthing I found Kate McDermott’s basic pie crust recipe on her website and made only one change, substituting 3/5 of the white flour for whole wheat pastry flour.  This, I would gladly do again.

As Kate suggests in her much-revered recipe, I used leaf lard, Kerrygold butter and King Arthur all-purpose flour (in the red bag).  My go-to whole wheat pastry flour is Bob’s Red Mill Organic.  This was my first lard crust and certainly won’t be my last.  The overall texture, flavor and flakiness far exceeded any other pie crust I’ve made.  For no reason in particular, I opted to make an oval pie, which I don’t recommend.  It’s harder to cut properly and the edges drooped a bit.  Suffice it to say, pies are round for a reason.


The end result was everything a savory pie should be.  Flaky, buttery crust with a touch of nutty whole wheat and the filling, how do I describe the filling?  The mingling of nettles, egg, cheese and sausage was a beautiful thing to behold; equally suited for breakfast, lunch or dinner, not to mention a perfect brunch dish.  Stinging nettles impart an earthy complexity, sweet sausage a pleasing texture, while ricotta and egg create a surprising lightness and mozzarella gives the filling a toothsome quality.  A rustic, golden crust was hands down the icing on the proverbial pie. 

Nettle season in the Pacific Northwest runs from March through May, so be sure to make this pie soon or be content to dream about it until next spring.

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