I don’t know that I’ve ever been more excited to eat something that I’m afraid to touch.I first heard of nettles as edibles (whee! That’s fun to say!) years ago when I was reading a book on the Irish famine. I’m Irish-obsessed, in case you didn’t know (my daughter’s name is full-blown Irish Gaelic), and at the time I found it tragic that they ate weeds to survive when the potato crop failed. But in a different Irish famine book (yes, obsessed), there was some mention of nettles as actually a staple food before the famine (if you don’t know Irish history, it’s tragic. TRAGIC tragic. The English were right bloody arseholes.) because they’re one of the richest sources of iron, vitamins A and C, and a full 10 to even 40 percent protein (and to that I say, what the what?? Vegetarians, get in here!). They’ve also long been a staple in herbal medicine, since they supposedly are one of the best treatments for hay fever, and also for arthritis. I was intrigued. Nettles seemed pretty awesome.
Except that they will sting you. The taxonomy derives from the Latin for “I burn” and they’re chock full of little stingers especially on the new growth. Standard rule of thumb for harvesting is to wear gloves, but I don’t own rubber gloves for cooking, and I was frightened. The farmer at the market
made fun of me dismissed my fears and said they weren’t that bad, but I wasn’t taken chances. So here was my oh-so-graceful and professional method for dealing with nettles:
1. Let farmer with callused hands and scoffing bravado put them into bag. Don’t put other veggies in same bag in case the prickers brush up against things and stick to my innocent chard or beets.
2. Remove from bag by grabbing only the bottom two inches of stem and awkwardly hold the whole bunch under the faucet to wash. Rinse by shaking vigorously, thereby blessing the whole kitchen with nettle holy water.
3. To prepare for cooking, just as awkwardly hold giant nettle stalks over the largest frying pan I have, hot with oil, and chop off hunks with kitchen shears, trying not to get burnt by the spitting oil because the nettles weren’t really dry from the vigorous shaking and in case you haven’t heard, oil and water don’t like each other and in a hot pan they take it out on me.
Miraculously, this method worked out really, really well.
The nettles lose their stingers within about 30 seconds of cooking, so you could probably cook them, then slice them more neatly if you liked, but I’m not fussy about presentation so much, and I don’t like getting burned by hot, thornless nettles any more than I like getting stung with raw nettle thorns… Most sources DON’T recommend my version of preparing them (I can’t imagine why) but recommend blanching instead:
- Plunge nettles into already boiling water for about 30 seconds to 1 minute to get rid of the stingers)
- Plunge into an ice bath to stop the cooking
- Roll in towels or paper towels to dry them off
At this point, they can then be sauteed, sliced, frozen for later, whatever, and they’ll be a brilliant green to boot. I 1) am lazy 2) never have ice on hand and 3) broke my favorite and largest mixing bowl last week, so plunging and bathing and creating more dishes [4) don't have a dishwasher] is not part of my repertoire. But if you are the opposite of me in any of those criteria, you can blanch like a normal person.
Nettles taste a bit like the lovechild of spinach and an artichoke. They don’t have the chalky feel of spinach and are milder in flavor, but they do have a little of the mineral/metallic/plastic tang that artichokes always seem to have. There’s a hint of lemon in there as well, and though they’re a little grassy, they don’t in any way taste like grass or weeds – though if you buy nettles instead of picking them, make sure you pick out the long strands of actual grass that seemed to show up in all the bunches. Nettles are toothy-leaved and roundish-stalked, not long, flat blades. (Did I, I know you’re thinking, shrug and assume those long blades were perhaps a rogue type of weird nettle stalk among my branches? Yes, yes I did.) Look for healthy-looking plants that have not yet begun to flower (flowering makes the leaves turn bitter), the younger the better for sweetness and mildness of flavor. You can just use the young leaves, not the full stalk and tiny flower buds the way I did, if you want to keep the flavor as mild as possible and still reap all the nutrient benefits. Nettle soup is a classic way to use them, or nettle pesto once they’ve been blanched, but I liked them sauteed:
Lemon-Parmesan Pasta with Stinging Nettles
Freshly grated parmesan (not the green tub)
- Boil water and start the pasta. Once you’ve added the noodles to the water, start your nettles:
- In a very large pan, saute chopped nettles in roughly a tablespoon of olive oil (Use as many nettles as you like – like any leafy green, they cook down quite a bit).
- When the nettles are wilted, squeeze the juice of one to 1 1/2 lemons into the hot pan.
- Add a little more olive oil, along with chopped garlic (we used 2-3 cloves for just 2 1/2 people, but we love garlic). Cook until the garlic smell hits you, just a minute or so.
- Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 tablespoon of the pasta water (you can save yourself the trouble of “reserving” boiling hot water by just draining the pasta lazily so a little of the water stays in the pot). Add the pasta and reserved water to the frying pan, and mix.
- Spread the pasta dish out in the frying pan to get the most surface area, and grate fresh parmesan on top. Fold the pasta dish into the serving bowl as if it were an omelette – slide half in, then fold the other half on top – then toss immediately. This gets the parmesan integrated into the food so you don’t just have hunks of parmesan in certain bites and none elsewhere.
- Top with salt, pepper, and a little more parmesan if you like.
Next time, I’m making Dungeness Crab and Wild Nettle Frittata or Stinging Nettle and Asparagus Risotto. They both sounded awesome, but I didn’t find the recipes until I’d already eaten my bunch. But I’ll buy more. They’re too tasty not to try again, and besides, I refuse to be intimidated by a vegetable. I’ll brave you yet, nettle thorns! Just not, you know, this season.
Trim? You can trim a bit of the tough base and eat the rest, or trim off everything but the leaves – your choice. But watch out for the stingers! They’re most prevalent towards the tips, so you can grasp the bottoms without getting stung. Use gloves, or my wimpy method as above.
Edible when raw? No. You will get stung, and possibly get burning welts in your mouth and throat, even if you puree them – it’s an acid that causes the burning, and it needs to be cooked to be deactivated. Unless, of course, you’re part of a contest.
Worth the price of organic? Probably. Though they’re basically a weed, so there’s no real reason someone should be using a bunch of sprays on them anyway, I’d still go for organic since you’re eating the leaves where the residue will sit. If you can’t find them organic, I would definitely do the blanching technique and probably toss that water rather than using it for tea (as some people do).
Best with: Frankly, kind of everything. They’re such an ancient food and grow in so many places that recipes abound, from Italian pestos to Scottish soups to Indian curries. I like to eat as seasonally as possible, so I like them with other spring flavors like young garlic ramps, lemon, fresh fennel, asparagus, peas (if you don’t hate them)… Nettles are a bit more delicate than some other leafy greens, so I personally avoid stronger flavors like anchovies or my beloved bacon as well, but that’s only because nettles don’t need it the way bitter greens do. It certainly would taste fine if you decided to go that route.
In Season: In cooler climes, you can probably find them Spring into early Summer, maybe even again in fall, but here in Southern California, you’re looking at a window of just a few weeks in early Spring, so jump on them while you can.
How to Store: In the fridge, in a produce box or plastic bag, they should keep for a week or more uncooked. Once they’ve been blanched, use or freeze pretty quickly.
Note: If you get stung, dock leaves are the miracle cure, but since most people don’t have those lying around – make a paste of baking soda and water and apply to the area, and once the inflammation goes down, make sure there are no stingers stuck in your skin. If so, remove with scotch tape. There’s no danger in getting stung other than the pain, so it should go away with no ill effects in a couple of days regardless.