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For most of human history, winter has been a time of nutrient depletion, if not starvation. After months of living on the likes of sugar and flour, and with hardly any fresh vegetables, it was common for survivors to forage for whatever non-poisonous, or even semi-poisonous, green leaves and shoots they could find beneath the melting snow. To this day, the idea of a “spring tonic” lingers in the remnants of rural America, and virtually anywhere else in the world where winter is a thing.
Today, though we aren’t wanting for nutrients in spring like we used to, this annual ritual is still a great way to get outside and re-calibrate your body to the landscape of home, and expose yourself to the elements. And after a winter cooped up inside, getting out there on the hunt for some spring tonic is a lovely way to help clean off the cobwebs of winter. You breathe the fragrance of melting mud, get wet and scratched by sticks.
Urban dwellers can participate in this exercise just as much as rural folk. In addition to the parks, alleys, hills and flood plains around town, there is also a wilderness to be found in ones own little yard or garden. In early spring, long before you’ve turned the soil or decided what to plant, the weeds are often already out in force. Many of these invaders are edible, and can make just as potent a spring tonic as a wild plant.
I first heard of the idea from writer and radio personality Kim Williams, who wrote, in Eating Wild Plants, “Before the era of supermarkets and vitamins in bottles, the first wild greens of spring were not only a treat but a medicine. Sulphur and molasses was the tonic for some families, but for others it was a mess of dandelion greens or a salad of watercress or tea made from fresh strawberry leaves dug from under the snow.”
Bitterness, the flavor of both medicine and poison, is well represented in the flavors of these wild plants, which tend to be more nutrient-dense than their domestic counterparts. If you aren’t prepared to eat some bitterness, then your botany skills should be particularly on point.
If you could find some wintergreen, sorrel, asparagus, or even the leathery, still-fragrant rose hips my little boys like to pick through the winter and into spring, you’ll have some sweet options.
Indeed, good plant identification book is a valuable tool for any forager in any season. In addition to telling you what to eat and what to avoid, it will also key you into legends, stories and traditional uses of the various species. If you’re new to a place, learning the plants and ingesting their terroir is a meaningful step toward fully inhabiting that place. Even if you have spent your entire life in a particular place, tromping around with a plant book for the first time can open your eyes, so it feels like the first walk you’ve taken.
Experts can bring home their miner’s lettuce and watercress, but if you’re just a normal dude or dudette living the semi-urban lifestyle but looking to get your spring tonic on, and you want to maximize the return on your time spent foraging, the real hay to be made is in the nettles and dandelions. These plants are so plentiful, especially the dandelions, and so nutritious and delicious, that there really isn’t much need to go any further.
Nettles, to be sure, are problematic in that they can hurt you in the field. Once they are cooked, the nettle stingers wilt and become harmless, but alive and raw, nettles don’t mess around. Scissors are essential, along with a bag to put them in, and you may want gloves as well. Your scissors, used gently, can serve as tongs. In addition to being tricky to handle, nettles can be a bit harder to find. They tend to grow near running water, but not next to it, and can be well camouflaged.
Dandelions, meanwhile, are easy. They flourish pretty much everywhere, and won’t punish you for touching them. Just wash them and eat.
These two plants go very well together in a pesto. The dandelion leaves can be left raw, but the nettles should be cooked. If you can find one and not the other don’t sweat it, just use what you have. By the same token, lambs quarter, mustard greens, chickweed, purslane, and just about any other edible weed or foraged plant can go in, too. Pesto is a forgiving dish.
Ten nettle shoots
Two cups dandelions, spotlessly cleaned and chopped
One tablespoon almond butter (or whole almonds)
Three tablespoons pumpkin seeds
(or pine nuts, walnuts, or your favorite pesto nuts)
One clove grated or pressed garlic (or more, if you roll that way)
¼ cup or more grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon lemon zest
Blanch the nettles in salted, boiling water for ninety seconds. Remove from the water and immediately plunge them into an ice water bath. The nettles are now safe to touch. Squeeze them into a ball and wring out all the water.
Add the nettle ball to a food processor and whizz until coarsely chopped. Add the dandelions, garlic, and a tablespoon or two of oil, and process again. Add pumpkin seeds, almond butter, cheese, and more olive oil, and spin again. Add olive oil until it makes a smooth vortex. Wipe down the sides, season with salt, and serve.
In other words, make pesto.
The color of the finished product is shockingly green and beautiful, especially after months of brown and grey skies.
Pasta is an obvious vehicle for serving this pesto, but hardly the only one. Use it as a dip, or a spread. Roll it in radicchio leaves. Eat it with a spoon.
And don’t worry about leftovers. Like most any pesto, dandynettle pesto can be frozen, ages very well for a few days in the fridge, carefully sealed. The flavors really mix, mingle and mellow-or at least they would in theory if my wife would stop eating it for long enough.