Today marks both the first official day of summer and my first antibiotic-free day in three weeks! Late spring in New York means piles of fresh produce, bustling farmers’ markets, gardens in bloom, and…tissues. While half of the city has been battling allergies in one of the worst seasons in memory, I’ve been stuck with a stubborn sinus infection that has kept me congested and medicated through one of my favorite times of year. Instead of cold beer I’m keeping cool with ice water on humid afternoons, and searching for all natural remedies to boost my immune system and help my body to beat this nasty pest.
Last week I stopped at a small vegetable stall in the Village, staffed by an older Chinese woman and stocked with lush mounds of bok choy and other Asian greens. Though they’ve never been a plant I’m passionate about, I paused to look over a pile of stinging nettles, the saw-edged, scraggly weed that is foraged all over the world for medicinal as well as culinary use.
Sensing my interest, the proprietress encouraged me to take home a nest of nettles and simmer them into a tea, which she insisted would be very good for my health. Thinking that it couldn’t hurt (how wrong I was!), I chose a bunch to bring back to my kitchen and steep as a restorative tonic.
Nettles have long been used as a treatment for arthritis and eczema, if not specifically sinus infections. But there’s truth in advertising when it comes to stinging nettles–they do actually sting when handled improperly (though they lose their potency once cooked). Nettle stems are covered with thousands of tiny hairs, each of which can sting you, leaving a painful swelling almost identical to an insect bite. Though I tried to handle the nettles carefully, I still ended up with a pea-sized “bite” on one hand that lasted the rest of the evening.
Bitten but emboldened, I steeped a few of the nettle leaves in hot water, creating a tisane that was grassy and mild, comforting but not overpowering. In a neat chemical trick, a spritz of lemon will turn the green-hued tea a light pink, which doesn’t increase its medicinal powers but does make the potion more fun to drink. Did it heal me? Well, maybe not quite, but nettles do contain a potent mixture of vitamins A, C and K, which is nothing to sneeze at.
I sautéed, chopped and tossed the remainder of the nettles with ricotta and campanelle, channeling Mario Batali’s famous nettle-filled ravioli at Babbo. Nettles are a common ingredient in Italy, part of the cucina povera that my Mamma and I enjoyed so immensely during our trip a few years ago. I’ve been thinking about that time this week as I get ready to shuffle off to Buffalo for the Ride for Roswell Charity Bike Ride I’m attempting this Saturday. Italia was such a special voyage for my mom and me; as we traveled together through Venice, Tuscany, Rome, Naples, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, we discovered a country and a cuisine abundant with the life-affirming memories we made there. This year has been no less adventurous, if not nearly as delizioso.
After Mamma’s cancer scare earlier this year, I’ve treasured the memories of our trip to Italy all the more: the food we ate together, the views we shared, and the happy ease of that time. I’m thrilled that we can begin planning our next chapter, filled we hope, with many more meals and travels together in the years to come. As I’m shaking off this sinus infection and putting on my riding gear this weekend, I’ll be thanking a number of people who have helped us turn the page on the Big C–our family and friends, our donors for the ride, the doctors at Roswell, and maybe even a cup of nettle tea to help me go the distance.