This Season's Pizza Topping: Nettles


Photo by benketaro/Flickr CC

In May, the Yale Farm is a verdant and gorgeous acre: the tulips are up, the lilac is blossoming, and the greenhouse overflows with varieties of salad greens. And yet, last Friday, harvest knife in hand, I found myself muttering "April is the cruelest month" under my breath. (I know, April's long over, but "May is the cruelest month" didn't scan.)

A confession: as the Sustainable Food Project's head pizzaiolo, the main criterion I use to evaluate the Farm's vegetables is whether or not they'd be good on pizza. May is the cruelest month, although April isn't much better. April sometimes yields the end of the spinach or a wintered-over parsnip, both of which roast up beautifully.

By May, the greens on offer are kale, mizuna, chard, and lots of different mustards, none of which meet my pizza-topping mission. French breakfast radishes, wonderful with bread and butter and salt, do not do well in the oven. It's a beautiful month for salad, is what it is. Enough to make you start muttering grouchy poetry to yourself.

Nettles are the kind of plant you look at and think, "The first person who thought to eat these was either very brilliant or very desperate."

Luckily, the herbs are starting to come back, offering the small but palpable pleasure of a sage and ricotta pizza. Or a little bit of oregano to go with marinara sauce and mozzarella. The two real mainstays of the Yale Farm's spring pizza-makers, though, are the asparagus and the aforementioned nettles. Through April and May, the asparagus comes up rapidly and bountifully: An asparagus, ricotta, pecorino, and lemon zest pizza is an elegant tribute.

But the nettles are the real workhorse. A weed that grows throughout the Northern Hemisphere, nettles look something like mint, but with a furry surface. The furry surface stings: you can't eat nettles raw, and (unless you pride yourself on how tough you are) you should wear gloves when picking them. Heat, however, renders them harmless, and they're delicious when cooked.

Frankly, they're the kind of plant that you look at and think, "the first person who thought to eat these was either very brilliant or very desperate." Or both, perhaps, because nettles, which grow in profusion pretty much wherever they find themselves, make excellent pizza. They pair beautifully with tomato sauce and mozzarella (crack an egg on top for an extra flourish), and they make lovely soup, risotto, or frittata. When you cook with them you get the added bonus of a sense of pride in your frugality and sustainability--you're eating a weed!--along with a green, leafy taste.

So perhaps spring isn't so cruel after all, even from a pizza perspective.

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Anastatia Curley is the former Communications Coordinator of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. More

Anastatia Curley is the former Communications Coordinator of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she writes, cooks, and caters local and sustainable meals.
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