For Earth Day this year, I have posted a rather lengthy read on how we can grow our own backyard ecosystems and ditch our do-nothing lawns. One of the many benefits of making this change is how delicious and nutritious things become—not just for the pollinators we hope to attract but for us, too. I thought a couple of recipes using what grows without any help in the backyard was worth its own post. Featured on our buffet today are stinging nettles, sweet violets and dandelions.
Let’s review our sources first—I will be using my beloved old copy of Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, local wisdom from friend Sally Burgess, and mystical ideas from my newest library edition: The Illustrated Herbiary: Guidance and Rituals from 36 Bewitching Botanicals (a gift from Sally).
This is one of those love/hate plants for sure. According to Rodale’s “the nettle seemed a very powerful plant to our ancestors—a handful of leaves stung like a handful of bees—and for centuries the human race has tried to figure out ways to harness that power.” And nettles are powerful and BENEFICIAL! Sally just chuckles looking at the thick line of nettles hugging her garden fence: “Most people might cringe at this site and get out their heavy garden gloves to start ripping it all out.” But not Sally, who has learned to respect this powerful, lovely plant and has been rewarded with years of healthy smoothies and teas. Nettles are high in vitamin C and have been gathered by herbalists for years because of their ability to soothe seasonal allergies, as well as treat asthma. I have used them in baking with great success—my cheddar rye yeast rolls were so much better with blanched stinging nettles! A delicious substitute for spinach, which won’t be ready in the garden for quite a while.
Nettles also work in companion planting, which Rodale defines as “a plant chosen for intercropping with a given crop because of its ability to enhance or complement the other’s growth.” Stinging nettles are naturally high in nitrogen, and many gardeners create a “tea” of them to fertilize their gardens. Planted around vegetables and herbs, nettles are said to stimulate plant growth and increase essential oils in herbs (Rodale). They attract several beneficial insects and are incredibly easy to grow in sun or partial shade with little fuss. They spread on their own, so a little now yields quite a bit more the following year. My initial two plants that were gifts from Sally are now four.
Here is amazing wisdom from my Herbiary book: “…when we humans start to generalize, lumping anything without a showy flower into the category of ‘Weed’…Nettle reminds [us] to see individuality and treat the world around [us] accordingly. If Nettle is pricking you, pause and pay attention!” Ah, true food for thought.
The only drawback to stinging nettles is their sting, which can be quite unpleasant and persistent, if you happen to grab leaves with your bare hands or brush against their bushy stems with bare legs. To forage nettles, you must wear gloves and protect exposed skin. Once you process your nettles, their sting deactivates. You can do this by blanching washed nettles and then shocking them in ice water to retain their color or you can leave them to dry on the counter for a day or so until the sting is gone. Some folks insist on cooking nettles or steeping them in boiling water for several minutes in order to guarantee they are not going to sting. Sally and I have found that fresh, well-washed leaves can go right in our smoothies without ill effects. Up to you and your personal nettle journey.
These shy beauties most likely did not start in the USA but are more like naturalized citizens. Today it would take way more than a wall to kick them out. So why do we even try—whoever told us these deep purple flowers with delicate heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow centers that create a carpet of wonder and nourishment every spring were “undesirable”?
Violets contain high levels of vitamins A and C. Herbalists use them in cough remedies for their expectorant qualities (Rodale). Me? Violets appear in my spring smoothies, salads and stunning cake decorations. Candied violets—coated gently in egg white and dusted in sugar—are showstoppers for sure. I’ve also added them to flavor and decorate sorbets, along with lavender and fresh berries for that floral note people just gush over. Some of my best herbal and foraged desserts are sorbet with lavender and sage, lemon corn muffins with mulberries and a lemon pound cake with lavender and rosemary.
According the Herbiary book, “Violet has no trouble separating public from private; she knows both have their place and season.” Violet, it seems, helps us balance our worldly service with our personal care.
While most of us look at dandelions with disdain—a common, prolific and pesky weed with perhaps the longest tap root known to modern civilization–other cultures in other times see them differently. Rodale notes that these sunny, happy yellow flowers with the spiky leaves were once valued as a food source and medicine. Time to revisit our view of the dandelion, I think.
Sometimes called the Irish daisy, this one-time immigrant is now EVERYWHERE. Dandelion leaves are a must in my smoothies and salads in the early spring. Most greens are just beginning, but dandelions arrive sometimes by early April. Rodale offers this chef’s tip: “Create a filling for savory pastries by combining minced dandelion leaf, ricotta cheese, feta cheese and a pinch of mint. Fill pastries and bake in a moderate oven until brown.” I imagine your favorite filled pastry recipe will work just fine. Did you know: dandelion greens are more nutritious than spinach! Dandelion flowers are a great natural decoration for cakes, cupcakes and pies.
In the Herbiary book, we learn that dandelion is an optimist, but with good grounding in reality. “Her roots are strong. She’s the shaman and the buddha, and her message is this: happiness is an inner landscape that has little to do with where you’re planted.”
Time to cook: Here are two of my favorite recipes using these foraged ingredients.
- One big handful of stinging nettle leaves, carefully washed
- One big handful of dandelions and violets and any fresh herbs such as mints and lavenders (whatever is growing in the yard that morning)
- One cup of fresh or frozen fruit (my favorite for this smoothie is market berries, especially if they have been frozen. Just pop them in.)
- One cup filtered water
- One-half cup milk of choice (I like unsweetened coconut milk—full fat only--or unsweetened cashew milk. But if you have access to local raw cow’s milk or goat milk, those would be devine.)
- Sweetener (Optional depending on the sweetness of your fruit. I like local honey because it’s purchase supports local farms, and it contains lots of antioxidants and local allergy support.)
- A pinch of coarse sea salt
- About two cups of nettle leaves (fresh or dried)
- A sprig or two of favorite herbs and edible flowers (fresh or dried)
- Whole spices like cinnamon, star anise and clove (This can be anything you fancy—cardamon pods are my favorite.)
- Sweetener such as honey or coconut sugar (optional)
- A kettle full of boiling water
- Put all the ingredients in the jar of a large-capacity blender and process until completely smooth. Serve immediately.
- Put all the ingredients (except the sweetener and water) into a large tea pot or thermal pot. I prefer the thermal pot because steeping time is lengthy and I like to sip this tea throughout the day.
- Add briskly boiling water to fill the pot. Steep for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour before partaking. I just let my tea continue to steep until it’s gone.
- Add sweetener, if you wish.
- Stronger infusions can be especially beneficial for relieving allergy symptoms. See my favorite resources below the recipe.
Neither recipe takes very long to prepare, but the tea, as mentioned in the recipe, takes time to steep.
She-roes in the Herb Garden
In my own personal journey with foraging and herbs, I’ve been lucky to have a friend and guide like Sally Burgess, who has vast experience in Mind, Body and Spirit wellness. She’s an amazing environmental activist who currently works for the Sierra Club, she was the founder of Studio Gaia, is a talented cook, and she manages a tiny farm right in her own backyard—remember Eddie who has the sweetest goat milk ever!
And I’m always meeting new people who have knowledge and wisdom to share. My newest discovery was the website Herbs with Rosalee. Rosalee de la Foret is a clinical herbalist and health consultant who has an impressive following for her books and online courses. Here’s her statement that really made my heart sing: “As an herbalist I know that working with herbs isn’t solely about the things you take or swallow, but also about connecting with the plants themselves and the natural world around us. My teachings are rooted in nature and the cycles of the seasons.” Quite the inspiration.
Rosalee also shares some of her recipes online, including this one for stinging nettle infusion to combat seasonal allergies.
So as we start into the warmer months of the year and our backyards begin to bloom, I think it is high time we took advantage of our awaiting buffet. You just can’t get more green and local and healthy that this. Be brave!