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Green giant

You must wear gloves when picking nettles to avoid being stung by their downy spikes—but these weapons are quickly neutralized by blanching in boiling water.
TRR photos by Laura Silverman

March 23, 2016

Are you willing to go farther afield to nourish yourself? Foraging is a wonderful way to get outside, connect to the land and discover nature’s abundance. One of the very first wild plants to emerge in spring—and one of the most commonly found in nearby meadows, parks and fields—is the nettle. It’s covered in stingers, as anyone who has ever tried to pick it without wearing gloves well knows. But, like most prickly characters, with a little understanding and the proper care, it reveals its better qualities.

Urtica dioica pushes up from the barely thawed ground in early spring, and the fresh, young growth is the most desirable. Pick only the tips, the first four or six leaves on each spear, because nettles become coarse and hoary with age. The stinging part comes from tiny fine hairs, mostly concentrated on the stems, which act like mini-syringes, injecting irritating histamine but also releasing serotonin and acetylcholine, two neurotransmitters that help to suppress appetite and settle mood. When handling nettles, be sure to wear leather or rubber gloves. Roll your sleeves down and your socks up as well, since wrists and ankles are just as vulnerable.

A quick blanching in boiling water is all it takes to neutralize the nettles’ sting. Cooked, they have a delicious flavor that’s like spinach with a hint of cucumber and something earthier. They’re a nutrition bomb, packed with potassium, iron, calcium, manganese, vitamin C, vitamin A and B complex vitamins. They also contain sulphur, which is excellent for the hair, skin and nails. Nettle’s diuretic properties help flush the body of toxins and purify the blood.

Use nettles in any of the ways you might employ other greens: wilted and buttered as a simple side dish, or to make pasta, gnocchi, pesto, risotto, or even in a wild version of Indian saag paneer. (Nettles are actually quite abundant in Kashmir and are often cooked with traditional Indian spices.) Like spinach, nettles reduce down greatly. Pick tons; they freeze well, once they’ve been blanched. They can also be dried—in a dehydrator or on baking sheets in a low oven—and stored in an airtight container. Reconstitute these in soups and stews, or steep them for tea.