Wednesday, May 16, 2012


The other day I saw an industrious robin working over a lawn, evidently pursuing worms. Just as she was pulling a big fat treat out of the grass a magpie flew down, knocked the robin out of the way, grabbed the worm and flew off. What!! My signature bird, magpie, playing the bully!? Well yes, magpies can prove the opportunist, but they are industrious as well. They build the most incredible nests; houses, really. Big bundles of twigs with a roof and an opening, always facing east, just like any good Hogan. They build them deep into a bush of, say, chokecherry, wild plum or hawthorn, where no respectable predator will likely care to venture. The nests can be plainly seen the first of May, before any of the plants have leafed out, when it is still chilly. But now, with warmer weather, there has been an explosion of leaves and flowers. Day by day, as the bushes unfurled their leaves the magpie nests disappear. And now, like most of the bird nests, they are just plain invisible.

Warm, dry weather has brought spring on early. It’s looking like drought for the summer, but right now, with so many plants in bloom, it looks pretty good around here. The long flower racemes of chokecherry, with their delicate almond scent, are being worked over by the honey bees, the big bumble bees, and the other little pollen gatherers whose names I do not know. It’s a lovely sight to watch the bees, their legs heavy with golden pollen.

One spring herb that is available right now is nettle, often called “stinging nettle”. It can be found along little streams and ditches. It looks a little like a dark green hairy mint, with square stems, but be careful and always wear gloves when picking nettles. The hairs contain formic acid; the same acid found in the sting of bees and ants. Once the plant is cooked or dried, the hairs are rendered harmless. Nettle is truly one of the most extraordinary edible wild plants, and is found growing all over the world. It has been collected for eons by humans for both food and medicine. Nettle is rich in vitamins and minerals, and has one of the highest forms of absorb-able plant iron. It is a great spring tonic, helping build the blood as well as flushing out toxins, like excess uric acid from the joints. It can also help with hay fever symptoms, arthritis and rheumatism.

I tried cooking nettle several different ways this spring. First, I rinsed it clean in my lettuce spinner, laid it out on paper towels, out of the sun, and just dried it for tea. I also tried making tea fresh and have been keeping a jar of it cold in the frig, drinking a little each day. There is so much chlorophyll in nettle that the tea tastes just like spinach tea! Basically, you can use nettle in any recipe that calls for cooked spinach. Just lightly steam the greens and add it according to the recipe. I made Greek omelets filled with steamed nettle, sauteed mushrooms, and feta. I added it to pizza, with sun-dried tomatoes and Greek olives. If nettle grows in your area, pick some now and experiment. Later on in the season the plant gets too tough to eat. In fact, the older tougher stalks have been used to make rope and fabric, dating back to the Bronze Age.

One spring vegetable that can’t be beat is asparagus. We’ve been gathering it now from the garden for several weeks. Hands down the best way to cook asparagus is to grill it. Just drizzle the spears with a little olive oil, add a dash of cayenne and salt and some herbs, say, basil and thyme. Toss it all together and by the time your grill is ready, the asparagus will have marinated enough and be ready too. If you have a grilling basket for vegetables, great, but otherwise, just lay the spears on the grill, perpendicular to the grate so they don’t fall through. Turn a few times, and after maybe ten minutes they should be ready. Even if you char the spears a little they still taste yummy (in fact, some of us prefer it that way).

Happy spring eating!
Courtney Caplan