When it comes to experimenting with mysterious green foods, some people need more than just a hearty nutritional profile for persuasion. Because besides being very, very good for you, food should taste good, right? Finding that balance of nutritious and delicious, the foods described as “wholesome” by folks from all different food persuasions, is part of the joy of cooking. While some people may turn their nose up at cooked spinach, others swear by the health benefits and taste of a well-cooked green. (Have you ever tried collard greens cooked with bacon?) But sometimes the greens that flaunt the most outstanding nutritional profile may not be found in the produce section at the supermarket – you may be able to find them right outside your own back door. With springtime finally here (at least officially), one such green we can count on to be growing in abundance in our area is stinging nettle.
Most people are familiar with nettles, either because of their infamous sting or for their valued status in herbal medicine. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) vaguely resembles the mint family. Sometimes reaching human proportions, nettle has a square stem and opposite, serrated leaves that taper to a point. This time of year, you won’t find the greenish flowers, which hang in drooping clusters and drop ripe seeds in late summer or fall. But you are sure to find the spiny hairs covering the stem and leaves, which release formic acid when handled. Nettle’s fiery sting earned it the first part of its Latin name, which comes from the root uros (to burn). Nettle’s sting, which can cause redness, burning, and even welts, may last anywhere from an hour to a day. While stinging nettles may intimidate the more cautious harvester, it’s hard to say no to a little green that’s packed with all the nutrients nettles have to offer.
Mary Preus, herb grower and author of A Northwest Herb Lover’s Handbook, writes that nettles cooked as leafy greens are “exceptionally high in chlorophyll and contain vitamins A, B complex, C, E, and K1. They also supply iron, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, silica, manganese, and trace minerals, pus folic acid, high-quality protein, tannins, and dietary fiber.” Where can nettles go wrong? Herbalist Christopher Hobbs writes that “nettles keep us young” and David Hoffman, author of The Holistic Herbal, notes that they are “good for everything”. The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook author James Duke lists arthritis, hay fever, kidney stones, prostatitis, urinary infections, allergies, asthma, bedwetting, bronchitis, osteoporosis, and rhinitis (colds) as some of the many conditions remedied by the use of nettle as a medicinal herb. In Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Michael Moore notes nettle’s properties as an astringent and diuretic, and useful in addressing excessive menstruation and nosebleeds. This is by no means a comprehensive list. The countless possible uses of nettles include herbal teas and medicines, nettle fibers, and even nettle beer and wine. (An excellent reference to the history and old European uses of nettles can be found in Carol Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. While we could talk for days about the many wonders of stinging nettle, here we’ll look mainly at the culinary uses of fresh nettles as spring greens.
If the amazing nutritional benefits of nettles have persuaded you to give them a chance, what’s next? Where do you find them, how do you harvest them, and how do you whip them up into a delicious dish?
Most herbalists agree that the best time to pick nettles is in the spring, when the shoots are still less than about 8 inches tall. You’ll need so me gloves, a gathering vessel, and some protective clothing so nettles don’t grab those bare ankles or wrists. Pinching off the tops (with just two or maybe three sets of leaves) gives you the most delicate greens while encouraging new growth and allowing for multiple pickings as the plants grow taller.
To find nettles, begin by exploring near your favorite riverside trail s. Nettles prefer wet soil and are often found near rivers and streams. We won’t name any specific gathering grounds here in order protect patches from being over-har vested. Besides, the joy is in the hunt, and nettles are ubiquitous enough to be found by even the novice plant gatherer. If you wander long enough near a river or stream, you’re sure to find your own patch of stinging nettles. As with all wild harvests, watch where you pick: avoid roadsides and all areas that might be chemically sprayed. It’s also very important to keep our impact on the plants and their habitats to a minimum. This involves keeping a distance from trails, finding large, healthy stands, and only picking a small percentage from any particular spot. Check out Columbine’s School of Botanical Studies Wildcrafting Checklist for some things to keep in mind when gathering wild plants. Also on the site is a great article called Wildcrafting for Beginners, which delves deeper into the art and stewardship of wildcrafting.
Once you’ve harvested your nettles, you get to decide what to do with them. Eugene’s Howie Brounstein, well-known herbalist and founder of Columbine’s School of Botanical Studies, says that nettles can be used in pretty much any recipe that calls for spinach. He describes them as “greener” than spinach, and not as bitter as kale or chard. He says they are delicious steamed, and can be made into soups and even pesto. For variety, Mary Preus suggests flavoring steamed nettles with lemon juice, soy sauce, butter, salt and pepper, nutmeg, garlic, cayenne, sesame seeds, or pine nuts. I would also add balsamic vinegar to that list.
If you are a fan of frittatas, Preus includes a great recipe for nettles in her book, The Northwest Herb Lover’s Handbook.
Nettle Frittata (serves 4)
2 cups fresh nettle tops
½ cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped onion or leek
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ cup chopped red bell pepper (sun dried tomatoes make a nice substitute here)
6 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
freshly ground pepper to taste
Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan, drop in the nettles, cover the pan, and cook over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the nettles are tender and no longer prickly. Drain, reserving the liquid, and chop them coarsely when they are cool enough to handle.
Heat the olive oil in a medium-size (oven-proof) skillet and sauté the onion or leek, garlic, and red bell pepper over medium heat until tender, stirring occasionally. Beat the eggs with 2 tablespoons of the reserved cooking liquid from the nettles and pour into the pan. With a spatula, draw the egg mixture from the sides of the pan toward the center as it begins to set and lift the bottom, allowing the uncooked egg mixture to run underneath. When the egg mixture is nearly firm, arrange the drained nettles and crumbled feta on top and grind pepper over all as desired. Set the pan on the top rack of the oven under the broiler for a few minutes until the frittata is set and the cheese is slightly browned. Serve hot with toast or fried potatoes.
Other nettle recipes can be found on the web. Culinate, a community food blog, includes a recipe for Nettle Pesto, prepared in the traditional pesto fashion by substituting nettles for basil and adding a touch of mint. While pine nuts may be the pesto gold standard, feel free to substitute walnuts, almonds, or hazelnuts. They are considerably cheaper, and they all make a great pesto. Another great Culinate offering is a recipe for Scandinavian Nettle Soup, or Nässelsopa. Heather Arndt Anderson provides a tasty recipe for a traditional Scandinavian staple, altering it slightly by adding a little fresh dill and topping it with a chive crème fraîche instead of the standard hard-boiled egg. Nässelsopa is a perfect seasonal delight: green enough for a spring tonic, and warm and hearty enough for the still-cool nights and lingering rainy days. You can also try nettles in lasagna, casserole, spanakopita, or (as mentioned earlier) as a substitute for spinach in any recipe with the word Florentine.
If you’re already a nettle believer, try them out in some new recipes this spring. If you still need a little shove in the nettle direction, I’ll turn to Dr. Seuss for some borrowed inspiration: “You do not like them, so you say. Try them! Try them! And you may. Try them and you may, I say.”
Editors Note: Clean and chop nettles wearing rubber gloves. Once you’ve cooked them a little, a brief blanching is all that is required, the stingers are deactivated and the plant becomes wonderfully edible.