Yes, you can eat these painful greens

May 15, 2008

Tiny glass-like needles, each with a bulbous base filled with chemical irritants, cover the leaves of stinging nettles. The lightest touch shatters them and unleashes a poisonous brew of neurotransmitters, histamines, and formic acid, the same acid that makes bee stings and ant bites so painful. The smart thing is to avoid stinging nettles altogether.

Unless you want to eat them, that is.

A quick blanching neutralizes their sting, and when cooked, nettles have a robust, almost meaty flavor. The leaves are high in calcium and iron, and studies have confirmed their effectiveness as an anti-inflammatory, a use that goes back to ancient Greece.

Don’t pick stinging nettles after they’ve flowered.

While nettle greens can be used in any recipe that calls for spinach, my favorite approach is an adaptation of a recipe from Faith Willinger’s Red, White, and Greens cookbook. Subtitled “The Italian Way with Vegetables,” Willinger’s book demonstrates the Italian emphasis on the best local and seasonal ingredients. As she writes in the introduction, “Italians do exciting things with vegetables.”

Called subrich (soo-brick) in the Piemontese dialect of northern Italy, these are basically little eggy fritters, frittatine in Italian, served as an appetizer. Almost any tender spring greens can replace the nettles, but the flavor will be different. Later in the year, I use spinach, arugula, beet greens, or even broccoli rabe, and add a couple of tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs.

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) grow throughout North America, but are especially abundant in the wet coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest. Anyone who’s inadvertently stumbled into a patch remembers what they look like, and it’s easy (if painful) to test a leaf to make sure it stings. Bring along an experienced forager if it’s your first time out nettle-gathering, and don’t eat the leaves if the nettles have flowered or gone to seed. After that point, they develop bits of calcium carbonate which may cause urinary-tract irritation.

You might be lucky enough to find foraged nettles at your local farmers’ market during the spring and early summer. They often grow in the same places where morels are gathered, so ask your local mushroom pickers, too.

There are 2 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by JudithK on May 12, 2009 at 5:25 AM PDT

If you have decided to tame and rid your orto (vegetable garden) of nettles.... wear full body protection when using the weed whacker. This is the painful voice of experience speaking.

2. by vesperlight on Mar 17, 2010 at 3:41 PM PDT

Can you substitute Canadian thistle or sow thistle for the nettles in recipes? I have plenty!

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Our Table

Joy of Cooking app

A new tool for the kitchen

The latest in our collection of cooking apps.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice