Wild nettles. Photo courtesy Good Eggs | San
If you like to scour farmers markets looking for rare seasonal delicacies, keep an eye out for stinging nettles, Urtica dioica.
Now there’s a name that can get the juices flowing—or not. Some varieties have no sting or burn*; those that do can be neutralized by soaking in water, blanching or cooking.
Nettles are slightly bitter green herbs that taste a bit like spinach with a cucumber accent. Not all of the varieties are prickly (stinging). Those that are get picked with gloves, and soaking or cooking eliminates the sting.
Other names are common nettles and wild nettles.
An herbaceous perennial flowering plant native to Asia, Europe, northern Africa and North America, nettles sprout up very briefly in early spring and late fall, growing like weeds at the edges of cultivated farmland.
Like most herbs, nettles are good for you, rich in calcium, iron, manganese, potassium and vitamins A and C. They have been called “seaweed of the land” because of their complete spectrum of trace minerals and soft, salty flavor.
Creameries in Europe and the U.S. use them to flavor their cheeses.
*In the stinging varieties, hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on the leaves and stems inject three chemicals hen touched by humans and other animals: histamine which irritates the skin, acetylcholine which causes a burning feeling and serotonin. They produce a rash that can be treated with an anti-itch cream, aloe vera or baking soda. But the plant doesn’t do a good job of keeping us away: It has a long history of use as a medicine and food source. Further, you need to eat them before they begin to flower, which produces other compounds that cause stomach irritation. Dangerous food, indeed! If you’ve purchased a sweater that lists ramie on the contents label, it’s a fiber made from plants in the same family (Urticaceae) as nettles!
†The others include black pepper, cumin, burning nettle, burning mélange, foenegreek, garden herb, Italian herb, mélange, mustard yellow, onion/garlic, smoked and just plain Gouda.
You can find many nettle recipes online. If you purchase a stinging variety, soaking them in water or cooking them eliminates the stinging chemicals from the plant. Then:
While your family and friends may raise an eyebrow when you serve them stinging nettles, nettles don’t even make the list of the top 10 dangerous foods that people actually eat.
Here they are. Fugu (blowfish) is on the list, but some of the others will surprise you.
Nettlesome, a cheese made with nettles. You can buy it online. Photo courtesy Valley Shepherd Creamery.