Wild Foods of Spring: Nettles and Morels served up with some musings!

Author(s): 
Carol McFarland

Spring, I love it! Especially after the winter we just had. I love the flowers, and the beautiful days, and the promise of the new growing season. This year I’m excited for our pick-your-own CSA from Link’d Hearts Ranch in Palouse. This is a model I haven’t tried before, but should be extra fun with our veggie-eating 1 year old in tow! I can’t wait to chat with her about all of their farm critters when we go harvest our share.

In the spring, I love to eat lots of greens– the purifying, rejuvenating, fresh greens of spring. I think of them as nature’s spring cleaning for our bodies. On our plates at the moment is the asparagus that I can never pass up when it goes on sale in the grocery stores, and pea tendrils. I picked up these little delights from Omache Farm at the Pullman Winter Market. Apparently, they were the delicious snips from their greenhouse cover crop! We’ve been enjoying them just like sprouts and using them on sandwiches, salads, and garnishes, for soups and stews. We lightly steamed a few for the baby to enjoy too!

Nettles
Nettles

Two things I’m looking forward to eating this spring are nettles and morels. Neither of these are farmed specialties, but are almost exclusively foraged. You can go out and enjoy the adventure of finding them yourself, or there are often folks who bring Nettles and Morels to the very first Farmer’s Markets of the season. For some, stinging nettle (Urtica diotica) is seen merely as an invasive pest plant that causes pain, however, when cooked, it doesn’t sting and is very nutritious. I fell in love with it during our Peace  Corps service in Lesotho. In the early spring, all produce was very difficult to find. The local Basotho often ate nettle, red-root pig weed, and lamb’s quarters for their green vegetable that time of year. They were so surprised to see Americans enjoying the same things!

Nettles grow abundantly on the Western side of the Cascade range, as part of the undergrowth in moist forest environments, and also in disturbed areas. Handling them is much more successful with leather gloves. Nettle is truly one super-charged spring green! Nettles contain B vitamins, protein, almost 50% daily recommended calcium, loads of vitamin K, iron, and other micronutrients. This nutritional profile can make them extra appealing to folks following a vegan diet. To prepare them, remove the fibrous stem and any seed pods. The greens can be used similarly to spinach and other greens.

My favorite recipe from last spring was Potato, leek, and nettle soup: (about 4 servings) 30-45 minutes

The potatoes were the last of the storage potatoes from the previous fall, the leeks had been over-wintered and sold by Moscow’s Urban Farm, and the nettles were also found at the first Moscow Farmer’s Market. To make this soup-

1 lb. of potatoes
2 leeks
2-4 cloves of garlic
5 cups favorite broth
3 cups fresh, prepped, nettles
Olive oil, salt, pepper (black and/or red)

potato leek soup
Potato, Leek and Nettle Soup

Sauté the leeks in olive oil, add a little or a lot of garlic, until it is all translucent, and then add your favorite broth. In the meantime, wash and cube the potatoes (and I cut off a few sprouts from my local storage potatoes). Now add those to the broth. I like to add salt and pepper at this time. Then, bring it all to a boil. Once it is boiling, turn it to simmer on medium-low until the potatoes are just tender. Throw in the nettle leaves for just a couple minutes to wilt them down. I pureed this soup and served it with bread. You could add white beans. Ground sausage could go in with the garlic. You can top it with parmesan, add some potato flakes or cream to make it thicker, whatever you like for this lighter bright-green spring soup.

Leftover nettles can be lightly blanched and pureed, then frozen in ice cube trays and placed into a freezer bag to add to anything throughout the rest of the year.

For lovers of the fungus among us, spring is a favorite time because of the morels! When I introduced my husband to morel hunting, he compared it to the thrill he got fishing! He loved the phenomenon that once he started to see them, and we were in a good spot, he would just start seeing them everywhere! Morel hunting is a fun challenge. To find morels you need: the right time of year, the right place, the right heat and moisture, a knife and mesh bag (it holds them gently and lets them distribute their spore while you harvest them), accurate identification abilities (pits, never ridges!), good “morel vision,” and lots of luck.  

Morels
Morel Mushrooms

Growing up in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, I first got into morels after the intense fire season of 2000 brought commercial morel buyers to our little valley. It was fun to try to find places that hadn’t been picked recently and then go out and pick them. More than once I’ve seen elk while out picking morels. When we’d come back with mesh bags full, we made some great extra cash! Now, it’s just fun picking them for enjoyment at home, and if we find lots, we share them with friends and/or pop them into the dehydrator to enjoy throughout the year.

In Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, look for them in semi-disturbed coniferous forests (especially after a fire), when hard frosts have diminished and the environment is still moist. The black morel is the most common, but brown, and even whitish morels can be found in the area. The reason I say “pits and never ridges” is, there is a sneaky morel imposter out there that looks vaguely similar but is a poisonous mushroom. It’s called the False Morel and a good website that describes the difference between it and the true, edible morel is HERE (see photo below).

Morels are very rich, they go great in pasta sauces, with beef, in soups, or slow-cooked down with lots of olive oil, white wine, garlic and cider vinegar into a very rich morel relish. You can do so much with these tasty little fungi! My favorite way to eat them is to save out some of the biggest and nicest for stuffing with various fillings, which can also be frozen and enjoyed later. I like to start with a simple filling that can be either vegan or for the carnivores/omnivores among us.

Morels ready for stuffung
Morels Ready for Stuffing

Stuffed Morels

6 medium to large morels, cleaned with a light soak in salt water, and halved
½ onion finely chopped
2-4 cloves minced garlic
¼ cup finely chopped red pepper
½ lb ground beef or 2 cups cooked lentils
¼ cup of cooked rice
1 Tbs chopped parsley
Olive oil
Salt and pepper (black and/or red) to taste

Sauté onions in olive oil for 1 minute. Then add the red pepper and sauté for 1 more minute, followed by garlic and cook until translucent. Add the mixture from the pan to a bowl and mix in either the beef or the lentils, then add rice, parsley, and salt/pepper. Mix it all together and then stuff the morels and bake for about 45 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft and the stuffing is cooked through. Additions to the basic stuffing could be olives, spinach, parmesan, your favorite spice blend– feel free to get creative! Wonderful served with salad, bread, red wine or with a rhubarb crisp for dessert.

If you have both nettles and morels, a great way to combine them is to find a basic risotto recipe, and enjoy both of your foraged spring treasures in that elegant dish!

Wishing you bountiful and renewing spring nourishment!

Resources:

Stinging nettles, blanched
https://www.nutritionvalue.org/Stinging_Nettles

Plant Data Sheet Urtica diotica
http://depts.washington.edu/propplnt/Plants/Urtica%20dioica.htm

About the Author:

Carol McFarland grew up in Western Montana and received her Bachelor’s Degree in Agroecology from Montana State University. There, she had the opportunity to not only take classes, but she also worked in several different labs from entomology to dryland cropping. She also worked for the MSU Organic Farm and their 60 member CSA. After graduating, Carol served as a volunteer with the US Peace Corps in Lesotho from 2011 – 2013 where she worked primarily with the World Food Program, Maternal/Infant nutrition, subsistence farmers, and microbusinesses. Returning from Peace Corps, she came to Washington State University, entering the M.S. in Soil Science program where her research primarily focused on soil acidification and outreach activities. During her time at WSU, Carol received a graduate certificate in sustainable agriculture as well as a M.S. in Soil Science. At present, Carol works for WSU family housing, serves on the board of the Moscow Food Co-op and enjoys finding, growing, and cooking lots of local, organic food with my her 1 year-old daughter!

False Morel
False Morel

Photos by Carol McFarland and Chrys Ostrander.

Edition: 
June 1, 2017