Many of us have long known nettles for their bee-like sting to the ankle as we sweep by the leaves along a trail or wade into them in the corner of the yard. I was introduced to nettles when I fell into a patch while on a hike as a kid. Via tiny hollow hairs, the plant delivers a mighty sting that swells, burns and itches for hours.
Therefore my appetite was far from the first sense raised when I ever encountered one. That has decidedly changed. Now that a little winter rain has ushered in a bounty of lush wild plants, we look most enthusiastically to the ever-expanding crowd of nettles in our field.
Stinging nettles are quite easily identified, making them a great choice for novice foragers. They grow up to two or three feet tall and have paired heart-shaped, dark-green leaves with distinctly toothed edges and tiny hairs. The flowers hang down in tiny light-green clusters.
We drink nettle tea very regularly, so we run our dehydrator near-constantly when they’re in season. The drying deactivates the sting, and the tea tastes similar to green tea with a hint of honey-like sweetness. The tea turns the most robust Disney green as it steeps, and it darkens intriguingly if left to sit for long.
The nutritional and medicinal values of nettles are myriad and incredible. Historically, nettles have been used to treat urinary and prostate problems, joint and muscle pain, arthritis, anemia, hair loss, and allergies, among numerous other ailments. It’s used as a diuretic and anti-inflammatory. Nettles are loaded with iron and a multitude of vitamins and are especially valuable for pregnant and nursing women.
Nettles are very versatile as a cooked green as well. They’re excellent in pasta, prepared in the noodle dough or stuffed into ravioli with fresh ricotta. They can also be used in lieu of wilted spinach in nearly anything. I find the flavor to be better and more nuanced than spinach.
To handle and cook with nettles, they can be dipped in simmering water to deactivate the sting, then chopped, or they can simply be simmered in a pot briefly, then moved to an ice bath. A delicate plant, they do not need much cooking. And while the stems appear tough when fresh, they quickly become very tender as the leaves wilt. The plants can be wilted whole and pureed in a creamed soup topped with crumbled bacon, as we did on Sunday.