Though kale has Gwyneth Paltrow as a spokeswoman for its healthful benefits, stinging nettles win hands down for nutritional value. Though both abound in calcium, iron, vitamins A, C and K, their PR acumen is wildly different.
But even without celebrity endorsements and with the unappealing adjective “stinging,” nettles have devoted fans whose food traditions involve harvesting and cooking them for soups, soufflés and salads. Nettles grow wild, and harvesting them is part of the adventure. They thrive in woodlands, ditches, meadows and vacant lots — those spots where landowners are usually happy to give permission to harvest the plants.
Hope Flanagan, Ojibwe language teacher at Wicoie Nandagikendan Early Childhood Urban Immersion Program in Minneapolis, teaches children to recognize and use plants to create a healthful diet, both in her work at the preschool and as a volunteer at Dream of Wild Health, an Indian-owned and -operated organic farm in Hugo. “Every plant has its gift, whether it is food, medicine, or utility. Nettles are free nutrition. Why do we try to get rid of them? I teach people to look at nettles’ assets,” she said.
The first part of using the nettles’ assets is gathering the leaves safely. You must arm yourself appropriately, preferably with gardening gloves, a sack to hold the leaves, scissors and a long-sleeved shirt (there’s a reason they are called “stinging”).
Snip off the tender top part of the plant, and pluck any larger, but still tender, leaves from the stalk. Most of the stinging hairs are on the stalk, so avoid handling that part of the plant. If your skin does become irritated from handling nettles, Flanagan suggests looking for some jewelweed (also known as Touch-Me-Not) and rubbing its leaf on the spot that itches. “The remedy grows next to the challenge,” she says. The two are usually together in the wild.
Once at home, a quick way to prepare nettles for cooking is to fill the sink or a large bowl with warm water and soak the nettles for 10 minutes, which removes the irritating formic acid. (Be careful as you dispose of the water, for that same reason.) Remove the nettles from the water with a slotted spoon — now they are ready to be cooked. If you take the extra step of blanching — dropping them in boiling salted water, then shocking them in an ice bath — you will be rewarded with a vibrant, jewel green that is food-magazine worthy, especially good for the nettles used in soup.
Cooking does remove all of the sting, though sometimes that’s a tough sell to skeptics. When Flanagan teaches children to cook with nettles, she finds that the proof is in the broth. She only needs only one child to take the challenge of trying some soup before the others will follow.
Jennie Bergstrom of Lino Lakes no longer needs to persuade people to try her nettle recipes. In fact, her friends now call and ask, “Is it nettle time?” Four years ago, she discovered a crop of nettles in her yard. “I learned the hard way, while weeding,” she noted.
Bergstrom knew the plant was important in her ancestors’ Nordic diet, the first edible green of spring.
She took this tradition and now invites friends to her yard where they gather nettle leaves, which will be made into soup, often over a campfire for full effect. Each individual bowl is garnished with half of a hard-boiled egg, sliced lengthwise. The egg is more than just decorative; it complements the nettles in flavor and also evokes spring.
Nettles can be substituted for spinach in almost any recipe. They have an earthier flavor, so it is advisable to taste and adjust seasonings. The proportions of leaf to cooked are the same as spinach: 1 pound of fresh nettle leaves, about 12 cups firmly packed, makes 1 cup of cooked nettles.
Flanagan also has a contemporary use of nettles. She uses them dried and crumbled in rubs for poultry and game, as you would any herb.
It might be awhile before nettles get a celebrity spokesperson. Until then, remember that cooks have been using the plant for thousands of years.
Carstens Smith is Minneapolis freelance writer.