Cooking with nettles, not unlike cooking with offal, always reminds me of a painting of a funeral. Not any painting of a funeral rather just this one painting of a funeral, Gustave Courbet’s Un enterrement à Ornans (A burial at Ornans). It’s an imperious painting, oil on canvas and ten by twenty-two feet. It’s a massive tableau in browns & grays of a provincial funeral (his uncle’s as a matter of fact), and it’s beautifully ugly. But to a certain set back in 1850 it was, instead, offensive, presumptuous. Even rude. Because you see, ten by twenty-two oil on canvas was a space reserved for velvet narratives, gilded horses. Kings. History. Blues & reds. Nobility. Not actual peasants at an actual funeral. Low subjects on a grand scale, “realism”. It was a fundamental shift in what was perceived as a worthwhile subject and a precursor to modernist painting. While the moderns would depart from the realists stylistically, I think the concept, the fascination with low subjects, with real life, as the content of high art is still with us, this legacy of realism. It was revolutionary at the time. There is no better formulation of it, in my estimation, than Baudelaire’s in one of my favorite essays, De l’Héroïsme de la Vie Moderne (On the Heroism of the Modern Life):
“The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences – criminals and kept women – which drift about in the underworld of a great city…we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism.”
I’ll offer, at best, a dispassionate apology for the art history lesson, both if it bored you or if you are fresher than me & found it awfully impoverished, but in another life modernism was a love of mine, and I ate, slept, and breathed Baudelaire along with my gin. It’s still dear to me, and I think about it often, even if I do spend more time thinking about pie crusts than the philosophical and socio-cultural implications of pigments. I don’t, however, apologize if you find my drawing parallels between nettle cakes and art history pretentious. Because that’s just a very boring way of looking at it!
So I give you my tribute to Courbet’s Un enterrement à Ornans & Baudelaire’s On the Heroism of the Modern Life. It’s an homage to the low as the high, a take on eggs Benedict, that posh hangover cure. It features purple asparagus thicker than my thumbs, asparagus so prized I actually had a nightmare about not getting to the market in time to get my paws on them last week. And it, my most precious produce, alongside the hairy, stinging dead nettles. The ancient quinoa. The glorious egg. Miraculous mayonnaise. Dark and spicy greens. Wonderfully salty southern cured ham. And a few of my favorite mustard colored pak choi flowers because I will always and forever eat flowers at any opportunity. It makes me feel mythological or something. But all of that aside, this is really just me using what is there, what I have. Real food & real light. And that’s the point.
Asparagus Benedict on Quinoa Nettle Cakes with Country Ham, Lovage Mint Aioli, and a Poached Egg
A rich yet healthful take on a brunch classic, this meal would make an excellent dish for Mother’s day, and it can easily be made vegetarian by omitting the country ham or gluten free by omitting the bread crumbs.
3) Steam asparagus:
Steam until just tender. I like mine a little al dente. I do nothing but sprinkle with a little bit of salt. If your asparagus is fresh & in season it will need nothing more.