Spring is here. Sure it arrived early this year (and in some spots in the U.S. it seemed to arrive before winter even started) but the ground is just “popping” (as a chef friend of mine likes to say) with all manner of spinach, asparagus, arugula, and spring onions. But you would be greatly shortchanging yourself of spring’s bounty if you were to be solely reliant upon these cultivated farm crops. There exists a world of wild weeds out there that are full of flavor, nutrition, and best of all; they are largely free (after you subtract the bit of labor it takes to harvest them).
One of the easiest and tastiest wild foods to locate is the stinging nettle. However, as the name might suggest, harvesting (i.e. picking) these wild growing greens takes a bit of precaution. These perennial native plants (Latin name: urtica species, Laportea Canadensis) while looking fairly benign, are covered in tiny stinging hairs that work like little hypodermic needles delivering significant, but not debilitating, pain. Supposedly, the generic name for the stinging nettle derives from the Latin word, “uro,” which means, “I burn.” This is obviously an innate defense mechanism that keeps most forest creatures from chomping on their tender leaves, but thankfully humankind has evolved enough to manufacture and utilize rubber gloves when necessary.
There are a number of pictures and websites revealing what exactly stinging nettles look like (also see image above) so I won’t bore you with a description, but I will say a good pair of gardening gloves is essential when harvesting nettles. This prevents you from feeling the wrath of its herbaceous defenses. When harvesting, there is no need to pull the plant up from its roots. Instead either snip (with a scissors) or pull off with your hand (the stems break easily) the leaves (the young leaves are the best part). Put them in a plastic bag and bring ‘em home (as with any wild food, do your homework and take precautions that you are harvesting and eating what you think you are eating and not something poisonous).
Once home with your nettle booty, there are many things you would do to prepare them for consumption, but first you have to neutralize their stinging properties. I (while still donning gloves) wash them, than steam them for about 5 minutes. They take on the texture of steamed spinach. From this point you could make creamed nettles, work them into a quiche, or you could take another approach and dry them for a tea. Nettles have amazing medicinal, as well as nutritional, properties (they are high in calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, and B-complex vitamins) and will surprise, and sting, you into happy submission.
As I mentioned above, there are hundreds of great nettle recipes online (everything from nettle pesto to nettle tea) and here are a few of my favorites from expert forager Langdon Cook. But the stinging nettle is one of those ingredients that you can almost be ceaselessly creative and inventive with, and I am sure there are recipes that defy imagination. If you have great stinging nettle tips, recipes, or advice, please share with your fellow Care2 readers.