When I was picking ramps the other week, I made sure to grab a bunch of small nettles that were alongside where we parked. There is tons of Spring growth to pick from out there, but a young nettle is real a treat. They’re at their very best when small, tender and sweet. They have a bit of a spinach quality too. You will still continue to see them during the summer, but eventually they get much more fibrous, hence the reason for their use in textiles making fabric from the stems, the same way we use hemp today.
You need to act quickly to pick nettles, their stalks become tough as the year goes on. When I see the very small ones, I pick them en-masse, blanch in salt water, shock in an ice bath, and then freeze in small bags. Afterwords I prepare like I would asparagus or rapini, I just pull out a frozen bag of them whenever I need.
I got the idea for this dish after I sat down for a breakfast of buttered nettles and duck eggs. As I ate, I was reminded of how soft really young nettles are. I thought it would be a good to make a recipe that showcased how small nettles don’t even need to be chopped before eating. After a quick blanch in salt water, laying them out on a plate and dressing them with a vinaigrette is a great, simple way to enjoy them.
The other components here are chopped “raw” ramp bulbs, macerated with a little salt and sugar to soften their flavor, and black walnuts with their oil. Macerating any onion with some salt or sugar is what I always do before adding them to an uncooked dish, such as a salad. It tames their spiciness, and mellows them. The ramps provide a great onion-y note to the dish, and the black walnuts and oil give a nice earthiness. If you find the taste of black walnuts too strong for your liking, sunflower seeds and virgin sunflower oil would make a fine substitute.
Black walnut oil was a new thing for me. I’m always on the lookout for different flavors, so when my friends at Great Ciao said they had some black walnut oil that hadn’t been selling, I made sure to grab some on the cheap. It’s great stuff, mild, with just a hint of black walnut’s strange flavor. For the recipe I cut the black walnut oil 50/50 with flavorless oil, this helps it not to overpower everything else.
Young Nettles with Ramps and Black Walnut Oil
Serves 4 as a side dish. This could easily be topped with a slice of fish and some potatoes to make an entree.
- 8 ounces fresh, young nettles, less than 6 inches tall
- 1/2 cup young ramp bulbs, sliced thin
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp black walnut oil
- 1/4 cup black walnuts
- 2 tbsp flavorless oil, like grapeseed or canola
- 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- Salt-for the blanching water
- Toast the black walnuts in a 350 oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown, but not burnt. Cool the nuts. When the nuts are cool, remove the skins from them using your fingers or some other tool, like rubbing them in a towel. Removing the skin from the nuts takes some time, but it is worth it, you will be shocked at how less bitter nuts can be without their papery husks. Crush the nuts lightly and mix with the oils.
- Season the sliced ramps with the salt, sugar, and vinegar. Set aside while you cook the nettles.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season the water to taste with salt. When the water boils add the nettles and cook for 2 minutes, or until all the nettles are completely wilted. Make sure not to under-blanch your nettles, I have stung my mouth before, it sucks.
- Drain the nettles on a towel to absorb excess moisture. Arrange the nettles on a plate with all of the bottoms and tops facing the same direction. Spoon the ramps and their juice over the nettles. Finish the dish by drizzling on some of the black walnuts and the oil. Serve Immediately.