Urtica dioica • painfully delicious

stinging nettle

Restaurants feature them (part of the “eat local”, better yet “eat wild” movement), nutritionists tout them (a true super-food), our back woods is full of them. Yes, I speak of stinging nettles: the darlings of the spring culinary elite.

the nettle harvest

Ever one to dabble in the latest food craze (and never opposed to free food) I covered up, grabbed a basket and shears and headed into the woods. The abundance of plants in peak condition led me to cram my market basket with the pernicious delicacy.

fiddleheads unfurling

While still in the woods, I spotted fiddleheads emerging from the many sword ferns and made a mental note to return for the makings of another esoteric kitchen experiment. Sadly, when I went back a couple of days later, the deer had nipped off each and every one.

leeks

On the way back to the house, I stopped by the vegetable plot, where a row of leeks was in need of thinning. I figured these would be good companions for the nettles.

Tongs had been recommended for handling, but I knew that, in addition to the tongs, this would be a hands-on experience. I broke out the surgical gloves. The stems and undersides of the leaves are covered with spiny hairs that release a devilish mix of histamine, serotonin and formic acid. By plunging the stems into boiling water for about a minute, that toxic brew is deactivated without undermining the health benefits of intense concentrations of protein, iron, vitamins and minerals. But how do they taste? Something like spinach with a little more of a mineral tang. The real difference is in the texture. There is an almost dangerous roughness on the tongue (I will admit: that may have something to do with the power of suggestion).

I had expected the raw material to cook down much more than it did. I wound up with plenty for experimentation. Dish 1: sauteed leeks and nettles layered with non-cook lasagna, bechamel sauce and three cheeses; grade ****. Dish 2: another lasagna using tomato sauce instead of the bechamel and adding sunflower seeds; grade **. Dish 3: simple scrambled eggs with the nettles stirred in and a light sprinkle of finishing salt; grade ****. My conclusion was that the simpler the dish, the more the subtle flavor of the nettles came through. And heavier gloves are needed for handling. I swished them around in cold water before using tongs to transfer them to the boiling water bath and could feel them stinging right through the surgical gloves. Not unbearable (anyone who cooks and/or gardens is used to minor injuries) but my fingers were still numb and tingly the next day.

Wendy, at Greenish Thumb has challenged us to cook up our gardens’ bounty and share. Go there to find good goodies.

11 Responses to “Urtica dioica • painfully delicious”

  1. Heather Says:

    I love nettles but I’ve never prepared them myself. You’re a brave woman!

  2. Loree/ danger garden Says:

    Do you ever read the blog http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com? She is an all out forager. I’m not nearly as brave as either one of you.

  3. Holly Welch Says:

    I can attest to the delicious flavor of Dish No. 1, but I’m having trouble believing the pain and suffering were worth it. Thanks, Ricki, for being the brave one.

  4. ricki Says:

    Heather~Brave and foolish are close cousins.

    Loree~We have French friends who are devoted foragers and can spot an edible mushroom from fifty feet. I will check out that blog (don’t know where you find the time to follow so many).

    Holly~Any time…as long as no crocodiles are involved.

  5. linda Says:

    I always gathered them up in our garden in Suffolk, Uk ….nettle soup. haven’t spotted any round here.

  6. Loree/ danger garden Says:

    My secret is the Google reader, makes it easy!

  7. ricki Says:

    Linda~I hear they are a hot item at farmers’ markets about now… or, I could drop some off for Philip to bring home to you (?)

    Loree~You are such a fount (font?) of information.

  8. Wendy Says:

    iinnnteresting…

    I have thought about starting a big patch of ferns. I actually have a great space in the shady backyard – away from any deer. Poison ivy tends to grow there…maybe we could cook that down and eat it too. ha ha!

  9. ricki Says:

    Wendy~My great grandmother always claimed that her resistance to poison oak was a result of having ingested small amounts of it as a child. Much as I loved and revered her, it was never an experiment I could buy into.

  10. Grace Says:

    I’ve been stung by nettles several times and can’t fathom eating the plants. I’m sure they’re nutritious and all but I just can’t do it. Ditto Fiddle heads but for a different reason: They become ferns and I love ferns. :) Call me weird.

    This reminds me of the sign that reads something like, “Today a thousand plants were ruthlessly killed by vegetarians. Stop the madness!” LOL (And btw, I too vouch for Google Reader!)

  11. ricki Says:

    Grace~That sign is priceless. I have had similar thoughts many times but never expressed it so well…or so humorously. On the other hand, I also think it is important to love and revere what we eat.

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