There are so many things I’ve been itching to do in Oregon since I moved here. Besides hiking, exploring Crater Lake, and things like this tulip festival, a big item on the mental to-do list has been mushrooming and, less specifically, foraging. I’ve been intrigued by gathering my own food for a while now, but if I’d taken it up in Nevada, I probably would’ve just brought home some pine needles, sagebrush, and leftover shrimp from all-you-can-eat buffets. (I say that with utmost love for my home state, as always.)
I say I want to try foraging, but I’ve technically done it many times. Growing up in Lithuania involved all kinds of mushrooming, wild berry picking, and wild thyme harvesting. I was just a kid, though, tagging along and being more of a (cute, I must say) pain in the butt than any kind of useful help. I’m not sure foraging had the same food-hipster cachet back then.
On a recent hike just barely outside of Portland, nettle grew abundantly on either side of the trail. The stuff costs $8 per pound at the farmer’s market, and undoubtedly, it’s worth it. But still, I remembered once again that foraging is on my to-do list. I eyed the lush green patches next to the well-trodden path, and part of me thought dog piss dog piss dog piss. But, you know. Food doesn’t grow in a sterile lab, nature is nature, we are all one. Also, this is why we wash produce.
(That paragraph took a weird turn and I’m really sorry. ONWARD.)
Whether or not you have nettles around, and however you choose to get them (or not), this dish is adaptable to whatever greens you have. Wilted spinach would be a fantastic stand-in, considering that cooking with plants that won’t give you an itchy rash has a lot of appeal, and they taste very similar. Either way, the freshness is a perfect foil for creamy goat cheese and equally luscious hazelnuts.
For the carb portion of the evening’s attractions, any kind of small pasta will do, but orecchiette is really friendly here, allowing finely chopped nettle to settle into its pockets. I wouldn’t skip the leeks either; they are another treasure of spring that somehow seems to be around all year but really peaks riiiiight … now.
When all of the above come together, magic happens. One of my core life beliefs is that pasta can never be bad, but this was exceptional in my book. I ate it for dinner three nights in a row (you know how I roll these days), and I would do it again soon. I politely suggest you join me, because I don’t like to keep a good thing all to myself.
Maybe next time, the nettle will be foraged — and washed very thoroughly, of course. So, please watch this space for recipes using your neighbors’ ornamental kale landscaping. (I’m pretty sure I’m kidding.)
- 6 - 8 ounces stinging nettles
- 8 ounces dried orecchiette pasta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more (or hazelnut oil, if you have it) for finishing
- 1 leek, white and pale green parts only, sliced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts
- 4 ounces goat cheese, divided use
- A handful of pea shoots or arugula (optional)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Using tongs or gloves, rinse stinging nettles well without touching them and drain. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add one tablespoon of kosher salt. Add the nettles (again, don't touch them until they're blanched) and boil for 30 seconds or so, until they're wilted. Remove from the pot using a slotted spoon or tongs and rinse under cold water. (Don't discard the water.) Squeeze the nettles dry, remove the big stems, and finely chop the leaves.
- Bring the water back to a boil, add the orecchiette, and boil until al dente (about 9 minutes; check the package for more specific cooking times). Reserve a cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.
- Add the olive oil to the empty pot and heat over medium-high heat. Add sliced leeks and sauté until tender, 1-2 minutes, then add garlic and sauté for an additional 30 seconds or so until fragrant. Add the cooked pasta, chopped nettles, and a splash of the reserved cooking water. Stir well until heated through. Add most of the hazelnuts and goat cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and drizzle with additional olive oil or hazelnut oil, and toss in pea shoots or arugula, if using. Serve topped with additional hazelnuts and goat cheese.