Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles have become a media darling as of late.  Suddenly, they are appearing in food magazines & blogs, riding the trend wave of foraged & found foods that seems to be washing over menus.  This resurgent interest in foraged foodstuffs follows the inclination towards home gardens, “putting up“, and backyard chickens.  Like so many culinary fashions, what’s old is new again.

People from “The Old Country” have been foraging for centuries.  Hunts of flora & fauna have been responsible for keeping entire civilizations sustained.  There are traditions – yearly rituals that begin with a foray into the forest for a certain seasonal treasure.  Even my grandparents foraged in the woods of Upstate New York, seeking out tastes of their homeland that could not be purchased in the markets where they resided.  Now, thanks to chefs who are constantly on the “hunt” for new flavors, and market shoppers who are more adventurous, foragers have a strong market for unique woodland treasures.

Inevitably, at every Farmers Market, we’ll hear someone say, “Stinging nettles?!  Isn’t that the plant I brushed up against as a kid?  That was horrible!!!” …or something to that effect.  Norma Cravens, farmer & forager, responds, “Now’s your chance for revenge!”  then offers instructions as to how to soften the stingers so that the super-nutritious greens can be enjoyed.

To offer shoppers culinary knowledge about these “new” ingredients, the foragers of Springwater Farm have me out there at the Farmer’s Market cooking up and sampling wild mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, elder flowers, sweet cicely, and nettles.  It just takes a sample and a few useful cooking tips, and shoppers delve into kitchens with their new-found ingredients.  It’s a fun and very rewarding job!

Since there is so much info currently available about nettles, I’ll direct you to some sources, and just get on with the recipes and a brief cooking tutorial.  Keep in mind that you can stop by the Springwater Farm stand Saturdays at Portland Farmers Market, or Sundays at the Hillsdale Farmers Market for more information, cooking tips, recipes, & fun nettle facts – I hope to see you at the market!

  • Culinate, an on-line site dedicated to the connection between eating well and living well, provides a wonderfully informative article by botanist Heather Arndt Anderson: Eat Stinging Nettles
  • This month’s Edible Portland Magazine has a write-up on nettles by Ellen Jackson:  Nettles: Bite Back
  • It was with strange coincidence that when brainstorming nettle uses, I contemplated nettle spaetzle, and not a week later, Hunter-Angler-Gardener-Cook Hank Shaw posted a recipe for exactly that!  I love when the Universe throws you a bone – thanks, Hank, I’ll just “borrow” your recipe!  Plus, there is a link to foraging for & using nettles in his post: Stinging Nettle Spaetzle
  • And here is a very strange excerpt from The New York Times in an article from 1901…I throw this one in because they speak of flogging with nettles to alleviate pain (!).  This I’ve witnessed firsthand – not the flogging, but I have seen a market-goer swish his hand in a bag of nettles to qualm his arthritis, and have been told a story by another about his experience with a Shaman who flogged him with nettles (he said that afterward, he felt amazing, but that it was “horribly unpleasant” being flogged).  Use of Nettles
  • “Wild Man” Steve Brill offers a wealth of information, both nutritional and hunting, on nettles, plus uses and lore: Nettles

How to Handle Nettles

The advantage of getting your nettles from Springwater Farm is that Norma is especially thoughtful when it comes to harvesting and bagging nettles for shoppers.  She picks only the tender tops, and double bags the greens so that cooks need only tip the contents of the bag into the pot, and can avoid handling the raw nettles completely.  If you find nettles available that are in a bowl or bin for self-serve bagging, be sure to handle with care, and use tongs to lift them carefully into a sack.  Touching them will hurt.  So will eating them raw.  I highly advise against it – eating them raw won’t poison you, but it seems rather sadistic.  Ouch.

Once cooked, they can be handled and used as you would spinach – scramble with eggs or use in quiche or frittatas, add them to Greek spanakopita fillings, ravioli filling, risotto, soups, stir-frys, puree them for nettle pasta dough, top pizzas, make creamed nettles, or simply sauté them with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and a squeeze of lemon (just like spinach!).

To soften the stingers, and render them harmless,
cook them as such:

Bring a pot of water to a boil.  Tip the contents of your bag of nettles into the pot, or use tongs to lift them into the pot.  Push them down and stir them around a bit with a wooden spoon or tongs.  Let them boil, and, after a minute, the stingers will have softened so that the nettles can be handled.  Within 2-3 minutes, the nettles will be fully cooked.  Lift them out with a spider or strainer and either refresh them under cold water, or spread them out on a baking sheet to cool.  Once cool, they can be squeezed of excess water if desired (a good idea if you are adding them to eggs), or chopped to add to soups.  If the stem is tender, you can chop the vegetable in its entirety and use the whole thing.  If the stem is woody, just pluck the leaves from the stem and discard the stem (much easier than donning gloves and plucking the leaves from the raw stem).

Note that the nettles are lifted from the boiling water rather than pouring out the contents of the pot into a colander.  This is so that you remove the floating nettles, and leave the sunken sediment (if any) behind in the pot.  In preparing the nettles in this manner, you can avoid having to wash the raw nettles and risk a run-in with the stingers.  Also note that I have never had anyone mention that the nettles retain any sediment, nor have I ever encountered it when eating nettles prepared in this manner.  Occasionally, though, there will be a thin twig or pine needle that has to be removed.

I am often asked if nettles can be steamed rather than boiled.  Yes, they can, but they should be washed first, because the sediment will not be washed away by the steam.  Also, if you blanch or boil rather than steam, you have the advantage of getting a “2 for 1″ with your vegetable purchase-

After par-boiling, you have a nutrient-dense leafy green (think nutrient content of spinach, times 10, with added trace minerals), plus the nutrient-dense cooking liquid.  If you have salted the cooking water, you can use the resulting Nettle Broth as a rich vegetarian soup broth or for cooking rice and risotto.  If you have kept your nettle boiling water unsalted, you will have a Spring Tonic of Nettle Tea to drink.

Both the nettles and the nettle cooking liquid freeze beautifully, and will keep the better part of a year.  A tip: Don’t squeeze out the water from the cooked nettle leaves before freezing; the extra water will help to preserve their integrity in the freezer, and you can always squeeze them out when they have thawed.

Mushroom, Potato, & Nettle Soup
makes a good-sized pot of soup, about 3 1/2 quarts

Don’t feel limited to the mushrooms listed – a great number of wild mushrooms will work just as well.  This soup freezes quite nicely.

1/2 lb young nettles
¼ cup good flavored olive oil, plus more for cooking the mushrooms
1 lb potatoes, peeled, halved, and sliced ¼ inch thick
a pinch of chile flake
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
½ lb shiitake mushrooms, sliced
½ lb maitake mushrooms, chopped or pulled apart into petals
10 cups good quality meat, chicken, mushroom, or vegetable broth (you can include some of the nettle cooking liquid in the soup broth – it is rich and will add another layer of flavor to the soup)
sea salt & black pepper

Bring a pot of water to a boil.  Season the water with salt.  Carefully add the nettles and cook until the stingers have softened, about a minute.  Drain the nettles and refresh them briefly under cold water until cool enough to handle.  Pick the leaves from the larger, woodier stems (the tender young stems can be chopped and added to the soup).  Set the nettles aside.

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over a medium flame.  Add the sliced potato and cook, stirring every so often, until the potatoes have started to take on some color (10-15 minutes).  Add the chile flake and sliced garlic.  Add another tablespoon of oil if the ingredients in the pot seem dry.  Cook for 1 more minute.  Break up the potatoes slightly with a potato masher or wooden spoon, then add the stock to the pot.  Bring to a boil.

Meanwhile, sauté the mushrooms in additional oil.  Add them to the soup.  Season with salt and pepper.  Simmer the soup for 20 minutes, then add the nettles.  Warm through and serve.

Nettle Flan
adapted from Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
serves 6

This flan is a market favorite, I made it Saturday at the Portland Farmers Market using delightful Causse Noir cheese from Monteillet Fromagerie in place of the Pecorino Romano.  Confession – I forgot to add the Pecorino Romano to my pantry, but being that I was at the amazing Portland Farmers Market, I was sure I could find a substitute.  The beauty of Farmers Market shopping – you can go to a cheese-maker, explain what you would like to use the cheese for, and they will be able to steer you to a suitable stand-in.  (Try that at the chain-grocery store and see what kind of answer you get – it’s unfortunate how little the people working there know about food).

Softened butter for the ramekins or flan molds
½ to 1 lb. fresh young nettle leaves (depending on how much nettle you desire, I generally use about ¾ pound)
4 large fresh farm eggs
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 c. chopped chives
4 fresh sage leaves
1/3 c. grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
2 c. heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 275° F and place the rack in the center position. Butter six 8-oz. ceramic ramekins, glass custard cups or glass canning jars.

Cook the nettle leaves in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender, about 2-3 minutes. Drain thoroughly, rinse under cold water until cool enough to handle, then with your hands, squeeze out as much water as possible.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, salt, pepper and nutmeg together until blended. Combine the squeezed nettles, chives and sage in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add the egg mixture and grated cheese and process until the mixture is extremely smooth, about 3 minutes. Add the cream and process until thoroughly incorporated, about 30 seconds.

Divide the nettle mixture among the prepared ramekins. Set the ramekins in a large baking dish so they don’t touch each other. Place the dish on the oven rack and pour in enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the centers are firm to the touch, about an hour.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and let the flans cool in the water for 10 minutes. Run a thin-bladed knife around the sides of the ramekins and invert the flans onto serving plates. Serve with a light tomato sauce or a simple green salad and a little grated or shaved cheese over the top if desired.

The nettle flan will appear as the first course at The Open Kitchen dinner next month.

Nettle Ravioli Filling
makes about 60 ravioli, easily halves
for pasta dough, check out The Farmer’s Feast pasta primer post or the post about goat cheese-filled pappardelle

1 1/2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 cup minced leek whites
1/2 cup minced scallion (“spring” or “green onion”), white and green parts
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound fresh ricotta cheese
2/3 cups ricotta salata, grated
1/2 cup mascarpone
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
4 cups cooked, squeezed, chopped nettles
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 egg, beaten

Heat the olive oil in a skillet.  Add the leek and cook, stirring, until softened.  Add the scallion and cook for another minute or two, until the scallion has softened.  Season with salt and pepper, and set aside to cool.

Combine the cheeses.  Add the leek and scallion mixture.  Incorporate the nettles and herbs, and stir in the beaten egg.  Taste and adjust seasonings.

*********************************************

Ok, I just can’t help myself, here is one more endorsement for nettles (note – I am not being compensated by nettles for the following endorsement):

Nettles are fantastically high in vitamins A & C and B-complex vitamins, and are rich in nutrients, including calcium, choline, magnesium, boron, iron, iodine, silica, sulfer, potassium, silicon, chlorophyll, histamine, serotonin, glucoquinones, bioflavonoids, maganese, phosphorous, tannins, and high levels of easily absorbable amino acids.  They are unusually high in protein for a plant, and because they are so nutrient-dense, they make a good overall tonic for strengthening the body.  Useful in treating anemia, their high vitamin C content helps ensure that the iron is properly absorbed in the body.

Nettles act as a natural antihistamine, and are a wondrous natural remedy for seasonal allergies.  I arrived at the Farmers Market last spring suffering with hayfever – Norma offered me a bag of nettles.  I boiled them, then drank a pint of the “tea” (cooking water) and ate some of the leaves and my allergies were greatly diminished, to the point that the symptoms were nearly completely gone.  The nettle tea isn’t my favorite tea for its flavor – it is rather vegetal, but it is palatable, and as for medicine, it goes down quite easily with no side effects.

Nettles, or Urtica – from the Latin “uro”: to irritate by burning
has been known by the nickname “naughty man’s plaything”(!),
the ‘naughty’ used as a reference to the devil.
A bad rap for such an amazing plant.

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About Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans

By offering Sage Culinary Advice, The Farmer's Feast assists Farmers' Market shoppers in making the most of their purchases, and helps vendors realize the culinary possibilities of their products. We create culinary education programs at Farmers' Markets. Through food preparation and cooking demonstrations, recipes focusing on technique, samples, stories and free advice, we're encouraging people to cook more often, from scratch, with market-fresh ingredients. Our goal? To cultivate domestic culinary arts. Once you've tasted the Farmer's Feast - glistening local produce, pastured meats, artisan cheese, wild seafood, rich nuts, grains and legumes - and see how easy cooking this bounty can be, you'll be hungry for fresh. Visit The Farmer's Feast on Facebook / E-mail wildeats@msn.com
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9 Responses to Stinging Nettles

  1. Sophie says:

    Mwah! Thankyou for compiling all this. I am new to the land and new to nettles and loving my first season of them thanks to some of your fab tips.

  2. Sarita Khan says:

    Kathryn, it is so nice seeing this extensive information on a very special plant which is more likely to be removed from a garden rather than welcomed. It is a powerful medicinal plant with 3000 years of use for a variety of ailments bother minor and serious. The latest modern research along with traditional use and recipes, including your flan recipe which is delicious and which will be posted with your permission is at http://www.nettlesforhealth.com.

  3. Bunnie says:

    Do you have the recipe for the nettle pasta sauce you made at the Portland market?

  4. Pingback: Fiddleheads, Truffles, Nettles…Oh My! « Portland Farmers Market Blog

  5. Holy crap! This is an amazing treasure trove…I gotta make that flan. Genius.

  6. Awesome post Kathryn and a great excuse for me to use my new pasta machine. I think it’s time to experiment with ravioli. I forgot about the nettle tea and dumped the squeezed-out juice the other day : (

    And to add one more reference is my column 2 years ago in the farmers market newsletter with a nettle soup recipe. http://campaign-archive.com/?u=032c7f72562b519ff92a6be41&id=7ac881b55d&e

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