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Nettles have been on earth longer than humans—we just forgot about them for a few generations.  A century ago, rural cooks prized wild plants.  Foraging was a daily domestic routine, a tradition and a necessity.

As agriculture and food distribution streamlined, we began to take the convenience of the supermarket for granted.  Wild plants became scenery, not food.  But today the old ways are reemerging.  We’re disillusioned with the environmental and culinary costs of mass trucking of identical produce, regardless of season.  But we’ve lost the inherited knowledge of the plants growing in our own backyards.

The first spiny stinging nettle shoots herald spring more subtly than the glorious sprays of daffodils unfolding by our doorsteps.  Yet this strange and misunderstood plant gives us the first fresh green infusion of the season, and handled with care, provides abundant nutrients and the untamed flavor of the wild.  Rich in iron, magnesium, vitamins A, C, and K, and protein, nettles are thought to provide a safe and gentle stimulation to many of the body’s essential systems.

How to pick nettles

Watch for the new shoots to reach about eight inches in height.  The young nettles are the most delicate and tender, but will sting if you touch them.  Wearing clean gardening gloves or food-grade latex gloves, snip off the tops just beneath the second bracket of open leaves.  Harvesting just the tips will allow the plant to regenerate, so you can return to the same plants in a couple of weeks.  Fresh nettles can be kept in a plastic bag in the fridge for a few days, but are best eaten as fresh as possible.

No backyard nettle patch?  Ask around at your local farmer’s market. Nettles grow as weeds in many areas, so learn to identify the plant and be on the lookout for them this time of year. Once the nettles have reached maturity and flowered, the leaves shouldn’t be eaten, although some use the seeds and root medicinally: herbalists call them “adaptogens” which help the body deal with stress and strengthen the adrenals.  Chop up older plants to make a potent green manure, or make rope from the mature stalks… but right now while they’re young, let’s cook them.

Cooking nettles for maximum flavor

Essentially, treat nettles like any fresh greens such as kale, chard, or spinach: throw them into a soup, steam them and serve with butter and a squeeze of lemon, toss them raw into your morning smoothie.  Discard any thick, fibrous stems, but the thin stems near the tips are tender and palatable in most dishes.

But for the most beautiful and fresh-tasting nettles, blanch them.  Nettle tips don’t need washing before blanching unless you’ve picked them in a dusty area near a road (not recommended).  Ready your largest bowl full of cold water in the sink.  Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil on a high flame, and dump your nettle tips directly in, using tongs or a slotted spoon to push them all under the water.  Leave them less than a minute while the water returns to a boil, then remove from the heat and use tongs to scoop them quickly out of the hot water into the cold.  Drain well in a colander.  If you like, drink the hot cooking water as tea, taking care to leave any bits of the forest at the bottom of the pot.

The blanched nettles will retain their bright green flavor as you add them to a variety of recipes, and these dishes still look vibrant the next day.  Without blanching, nettles turn an unappetizing grey overnight.  All green vegetables are most nutritious when eaten immediately after cooking.

Quick and easy nettle soup

This is a wonderfully flexible recipe — vary the quantities of ingredients as you like.  Peel, chop, and boil four large russet potatoes in salted water.  Drain and allow to cool.  Coarsely chop a small yellow onion and two ribs of celery.  Sauté these in two tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat — throw in a teaspoon of sea salt, half a teaspoon fresh ground pepper, and half a teaspoon chopped fresh thyme if you have it.  When the onions are translucent, add the vegetables to the potatoes in a large pot.  Add two cups liquid: cold water, milk, vegetable stock, or chicken broth.   Chop your blanched nettles coarsely — use about a cup of chopped nettles, but more or less will be fine — and throw them into the pot.  Puree with an immersion blender (food processor or regular blender will work too).  Stir in half a cup of heavy cream, and add salt to taste.  For a non-dairy version, substitute olive oil and unsweetened almond milk.  The soup can now be stored in the fridge until dinnertime.  When reheating, add liquid to achieve the desired consistency; stir frequently until hot but not boiling.  You can garnish with crème fraîche or just enjoy as is.  I like to serve this soup with a simple baked wild salmon for an easy spring supper.  Kid friendly — my four-year-old could not get enough of this soup!

Other nettle ideas

  • Nettles are a natural match with eggs.  Throw coarsely chopped blanched nettles into your scramble or omelette with cheese and mushrooms.
  • Use blanched nettles to replace spinach in spanakopita or lasagna, even on pizza.
  • Sauté onions in butter, add chopped blanched nettles and heavy cream for a luxurious side dish.  Indian spices are a wonderful variation!
  • Make a beautiful green risotto with shallots, garlic, stock and arborio rice.
  • Nettle pesto: throw the raw or blanched nettles into a food processor with olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, a handful of walnuts, a squeeze of lemon, and salt to taste.  Grated hard cheese is optional.  Pulse until you have a coarse paste.  Toss with pasta or steamed vegetables, or use as a topping for grilled fish.  Pesto can be refrigerated or frozen in small jars — cover with a layer of olive oil to retain freshness.
  • For the ambitious, experiment with brewing nettle beer, or nonalcoholic nettle cordial.
  • If you find an abundance of nettles, harvest as many tips as you like and dry the excess.  Simply spread the fresh tips on a clean surface in a dry indoor area and allow to dry for a few days (or use your dehydrator), until they crumble easily.  Store in an airtight jar and use to make mineral-rich nettle tea throughout the year.
  • Freeze pureed blanched nettles in ice cube trays; transfer to freezer bags and throw a couple in winter soups when you need a green boost.

The infamous nettle sting

Many of us grew up carefully avoiding stinging nettles, even trying to eradicate them.  It requires a real change of perspective to celebrate and even encourage these ancient weeds.  The tiny hairs act as syringes to inject a painful chemical cocktail when brushed by a stray hand.  Luckily, a quick dip in boiling water neutralizes the irritants, and surprisingly, even a pass through a blender breaks up the spines sufficiently.  I’ve watched experienced wild-crafters carefully chew and swallow raw fresh-picked nettle tops (I haven’t yet dared).  Remember, folk wisdom has attributed healing powers to nettle stings, which some brave souls have self-administered to reduce arthritis inflammation!

Gourmet treat or health food?

These days, nettles are making headlines and are regulars on the specials board of high-end restaurants. Some hunt nettles seeking rumored health-boosting benefits, others to reconnect with a forgotten way of life.

Along with sorrel, ramps, fiddleheads, and morels, nettles are among the first spring gifts of the forest.  Woven into the fabric of human history and found in every state except Hawaii, nettles favor disturbed soil near the edges of human habitation.  Unlike some trendy wild foods, nettles benefit from cutting and show no signs of over-foraging!

You may be suspicious at first bite, but this hardy weed will reward your kitchen experiments in both flavor and health.

Related: Nettle Tea – How to Make a Natural Spring Tonic