It's been a crazy mild winter in Seattle. According to my friends who know such things and can school us transplants (roughly 99% of Seattle residents, from what I gather), it is a consequently crazy early stinging nettle season.
Now I'd had nettles before, in soup, mostly, and a delicious risotto, just last night, made by my friend Marc. But I'd never actually held one in my hand until last week. Let me pause and let you reflect on that: held.in.my.hand. Turns out the "stinging" part of "stinging nettles" is not just a poetic embellishment--those improbably green and inviting critters STING. I bought a bag from Foraged and Found at the farmers market, and the bag split. I was just trying to close the bag somehow, and my poor hands suffered for hours. All of this is to say USE GLOVES to prepare them. I'm not kidding. I just used TWO PAIRS of latex gloves and still got a couple of stings, but it's worth it! It's green and spring and hope and delicious! Now the green blade riseth!!! [I apologize to my non-choral/hymn friends for that reference.]
As I tasted a fried nettle leaf while Marc was preparing the risotto, I had one of those evocative taste moments. It reminded me of poke sallet, which we had gathered in the Ozark woods and fields back in Arkansas in my childhood. Poke, like nettles, has a warning attached. It evidently contains some sort of unsavory component, so it has to be boiled twice: the first time one throws away the water and then starts over (conventional wisdom is that it's "poison"--but I grew up in a family of Wide-Eyed, Arm-Waving Storytellers, so I don't know if it's really true). [see below for an anecdote from my mother about poke sallet] At any rate, both poke and nettles make you work for them, and so I thought I might try to honor my bag of nettles by making a tart--riffing off a quiche my Aunt Dena used to make with Poke Sallet back during the High Quiche Years, the 70s.
I did. It was tasty. I wanted you to know.
Stinging Nettle Tart with Bacon and Parmesan
1 recipe Yeasted Tart Dough*
8 cups fresh nettles (use gloves to remove stems; wash; you should have about 6 c. of leaves)
1 T. aged Balsamic vinegar
4 thick slices bacon (I used home cured and smoked Bay and Black Pepper by my friend, Larry, and I apologize for the fact that I am not able to share it with you.)
1 c. heavy cream
1/3 c. Greek yogurt or sour cream
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt, freshly ground black pepper
a few scrapes of fresh nutmeg
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the washed nettle leaves (did I mention you should be wearing gloves??) and simmer for a few minutes. You don't want to cook them and mute that green, just deactivate the DEVIL in them. Drain. Pulse in a food processor until chopped, but not pureed. Drain well and squeeze all water from them. Sprinkle on the vinegar and season with salt and pepper.
Chop the bacon and brown in a large skillet. If there is more than 2 T. of grease, remove some of it. To the bacon and grease, add the shallot. Cook until just short of golden, stir in the nettles and toss around for a minute or two. Remove from heat and cool.
Beat eggs, dairy, cheese, salt and pepper to taste (how salty is your bacon? I can't say.), and a bit of nutmeg.
Press the tart dough into and up the sides of a tart pan with a removable bottom. Spread the cooled nettle and bacon mixture evenly over the tart shell.
Pour in the custard and jostle the pan a bit to even it out. Place on a sheet pan and bake at 375 degrees until puffy, set, and golden, about 30-35 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving--this tart is more tasty if it's just warm, not blazing hot.
I think I would love to serve this to friends for an early-spring-please-let-me-believe-winter-is-over brunch, along with bowls of citrus, strong, fragrant coffee, and hours of conversation.
* Yeasted Tart Dough, adapted from Deborah Madison's classic The Greens Cookbook
1 t. active dry yeast (I used 1/2 T. fresh yeast)
1/4 c. warm water
pinch of sugar
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 c. flour (I used more, since I was using whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 t. salt
3 T. soft butter
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. When bubbly, stir in the egg. Add the butter and half the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon and add flour, bit by bit, until the dough is pulled together enough to turn over with your hand. Knead in the bowl by folding the dough over onto itself and adding flour if it gets too sticky. Once it is smooth and pliable, form into a ball (all in the bowl) and cover the bowl with a towel. Set aside.
This is my mother's comment about poke sallet: Re: the poke sallet...it's not really "poisonous"...but, it IS strong enough to blister a one-year-old's lips and surrounding areas! Which is precisely what happened to you, Jenifer! Not knowing about poke sallet my own self, I gave you a taste of it, and you LOVED it! Scarfed it down in record time for a toddler of your age! Long story short, when your lips swelled and every place the greens touched turned beet red...I rushed you off to the pediatrician, who healed you, but voiced his "displeasure" with me. Well, I was merely a child myself...what can I say? I've learned a few lessons since then...and still love poke sallet!!! :):)