Stinging nettles are a fierce plant, the name alone scares many people away and if you have had a bare skin run in with them, you know exactly what the name implies. So it may come as a surprise to some, but this combative plant is coveted in the kitchen. Nettles have a very unique and delicious flavor, a cross between spinach and cucumber, and can be used like spinach in any cooked dish.
Nettles are abundant in early spring, from March to April, but will last through summer in the Bay Area. When foraging make sure to pick young plants and only pick the tops, about 3 inches wide. Nettles are often located near wild blackberries in moist ground as well as in open woodlands. If foraging is not your forte, you can also find nettles from local growers; currently organic grower Coke Farm has stock available.
What puts the “sting” in stinging nettles? Silica hairs cover the outside of the plant and contain formic acid. This is the same acid fire ants have and can really pack a punch. Thus, when handling nettles, you must always wear gloves to protect your hands. If you are harvesting, long sleeves and pants are a good idea as well. In the unfortunate occasion your bare skin does touch a nettle plant, check out these ways to treat the sting.
The only universal rule for preparing nettle leaves is that they must be cooked, for obvious “stinging” reasons. After washing and draining them, remove the stems then blanch the leaves for about 3 to 4 minutes. All of the greens should be wilted, but not falling apart. Drain and shock in cold water to preserve its bright green color and then let drain in a colander. Press down on the nettles to release excess water, then place the greens on a towel, wring out any remaining water and you are done. It is best to use them right away, but they can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
Nettles are a popular “old world” ingredient. Scandinavians make a nettle and fish soup, Italians use it in pesto, pastas and fillings and Greeks have been know to add it to spanakopita. What people have known for so long, is that this low calorie green is a super food, high in potassium, fiber, iron, sulfur, vitamin C, vitamin A, and B complex vitamins. They suppress appetite, improve skin, hair and nails, help flush toxins from the body and purify blood. Nettles’ medicinal uses have ranged from treating arthritis and anemia to hay fever and kidney problems. As well, when the leaves are dried, they can be used to make tea to alleviate allergy symptoms.
If you are deciding where to start with nettles, go simple. Try finely chopping the leaves and adding them to omelets, sauces or pizza. If you are interested in focusing on just the nettles, try nettle soup! Substituting nettles for spinach, parsley, basil or even chard or kale in a hot dish is a great way to experiment with this item and perhaps find a new favorite dish.