It’s nettle appreciation week here at Homegrown Evolution. Inspired by Homegrown Neighbor’s post, I thought I’d throw in my own two cents about nettles.
First, it’s one of my favorite plants. Its nutritional profile is outstanding. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritionally dense foods available. It’s a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins, chlorophyll–the things your body might be lacking after a long winter, or a period stress and poor eating. For this reason it’s long been treasured as a spring tonic.
The most straightforward way to take advantage of these nutritional benefits is to eat nettles as a green, but as our neighbor mentions, they don’t make great eating. They’re not bad, just bland. It’s funny how such a prickly plant is so aggressively mild when all is said and done. That’s part of its charm and mystery. When I harvest it in the wild, usually from tall stands of tough, mean plants, I really feel like I’m hunting or doing combat of some sort. The older nettles get, the more intimidating they become. Though I wear long pants and sleeves and rubber dishwashing gloves when I go into battle, I never escape unscathed. But stings are just part of the process, a price I pay gladly.
I recommend you check out the website of Susun Weed, an herbalist. Reading there, I learned that infusions make more of the plant nutrients available than regular tea, so now we put one ounce of dried nettle (an ounce is quite a lot–a cup if it’s chopped, half a jar or more if the leaves are whole) in a quart jar, fill the jar with boiling water and let it sit 4-8 hours before drinking. The resulting brew is stronger tasting than ordinary nettle tea, but not unpleasant at all. It’s our house energy drink.
One of the dusty corners of the Homegrown Evolution reference library holds two examples of a book genre I always look out for: the Mormon survival manual. As far as I can tell, these tomes assume we’re, “in the last days,” a period for which the Latter Day Saints hierarchy suggests keeping a two year supply of food for your household. Having just seen the grim Cormac McCarthy/Viggo Mortensen vehicle “The Road” and not wanting to have to resort to cannibalism (those folks at the Wal-Mart sure don’t look appetizing!), I cracked open my Mormon survival books starting with Esther Dickey’s Passport to Survival.
The astonishing thing about the 110 recipes in Dickey’s book is that they make use, almost exclusively, of only four ingredients: wheat, salt, honey and powdered milk. This makes Passport to Survival one of the most unusual cookbooks ever written. From these easily stored and inexpensive raw materials Dickey makes everything from tacos to ice cream. The fake meat that forms the centerpiece of her suggested meals is made by extracting gluten from flour and then making seitan. Your greens come from sprouting wheat. Here’s a few recipes and meals:
“#26. Mock Tater Tots
1/4 cup dry milk
1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup thick starch #14a
Combine, and drop mixture from a teaspoon onto a cookie sheet Bake until brown. (Make tater tots miniature size).”
Ever resourceful, Dickey’s thick starch is the leftover water made from extracting the gluten from the wheat.
“#83. Soft Ice Cream (Emergency Flavor)
1 cup dry milk
3 cups water
Mix, put in shallow tray, and freeze solid. Break in small chunks and beat with electric mixer, bender or juicer. Serve in miniature cones made from dough #51.”
Dickey whips up some lavish meals for the bunker, again, with just flour, salt, honey and powdered milk:
“Tuesday supper: “Hors d’oeuvres #27, green cream soup #70 and #73, thin sticks #9, wheatburgers #36, oven-cracked wheat #46d, soft ice cream #83 with caramel syrup #84, barber pole sticks #90, cold milk.”
“Monday dinner: green drink #73, emergency stew #20, noodles #27, bread sticks #38, criss-cross cookies #91.”
Dickey slept outdoors into her 90s and passed away in 2008. From her obituary,
“Nobody could say Esther had not practiced what she preached. As a young couple, Russell and Esther lived in a campground for more than two months, baking bread with a reflector oven. In her own east Multnomah County backyard, she once comfortably lived in a 15-by-4-by-6-foot cave, as an experiment. She once pushed a loaded two-wheeled metal cart to Oxbow Park along the Sandy River to live in a campsite by the river for several days.
There was one notable Thanksgiving with gluten drumsticks.”
I have the 1969 edition of Passport to Survival that I picked up on Amazon. There’s a more recent edition written by two of her daughters, but I haven’t seen it.
Should you be inspired to try your hand at wheat gluten cookin’, here’s some step by step instructions on making your own seitan from scratch on the Forkable blog.
Update 1/15/2010: I was just thumbing through my copy of the 1980 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and found a page devoted to Mormon survival manuals including a review of Passport to Survival. The review even included the same photo I chose for this post. This proves that:
1. The Whole Earth crew invented the internets.
2. There’s nothing I can blog about that the Whole Earth folks didn’t already cover. I owe them a tremendous debt and continue to admire their work each time I open my old copy of the catalog.