Heather Arndt Anderson is a Portland, Oregon, native who is presently enjoying a respite from environmental consulting to raise a baby boy. She puts her botany degree to use, though, by growing as much food as she gathers. Here, she’ll talk about foraged food. Heather also keeps a blog, Voodoo & Sauce.

Eat stinging nettles

Test your mettle with these wildland greens

By
February 11, 2011

It’s been said that as long as you’re near water, you’ll never go hungry. Cattails have been hailed as “nature’s supermarket” and arrowhead has been called the “swamp potato”; watercress graces the menus of the fanciest restaurants.

But even Euell Gibbons, the father of the modern wild-food craze, makes a glaring omission in his forager’s bible, Stalking the Wild Asparagus: There is not a single mention of stinging nettles.

Stinging nettles are delicious, abundant, and oft-overlooked. And you don’t even have to live in the sticks to find them.

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) grow in swampy places and riparian corridors along streams throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. They resemble a mint, though they’re in their own botanical family (the Urticaceae). They’re easily identified by their pairs of deltoid (slightly triangular), dentate leaves (opposite-decussate in orientation), with fine spines covering the stems and leaves.

In the Pacific Northwest, they first poke their little heads out of the alder and cottonwood duff in February or March, in search of spring’s first warming sun — depending on your neck of the woods, they’ll be out a little earlier or later. This time of year, too, is when they are at their most tender and nutritious. (They’re fine later in the year as well, although just a little stringier; they’re better then for a pesto than a gratin). Nettles are an excellent source of protein, iron, and vitamins C and A.

Nettle soup.

Nettle soups are a mainstay of European cuisine: Scandinavian nässelsoppa, Italian zuppa di ortiche, Russian borsh s krapivoj. Himalayans stew them with rice and spices to make a thick porridge. Nettle cordials date back to ancient Rome.

So why are nettles considered by so many to be merely fodder for thrill-seeking culinary enthusiasts or back-to-the-land survivalist types? I have a guess.

In my years as a wetland biologist, I’ve often happened upon great swaths of stinging nettles. I’m a trained botanist; I can spot them from miles away. Yet in the beginning of every field season, I manage to graze my blithe knuckles across a patch of this armed herb, leaving me standing there with my lip out, wounded and whimpering.

Then the sting sets in. Expletives ensue.

True to their moniker, stinging nettles do pack a potent sting, delivered mercilessly by fine, silicate trichomes, which act as tiny syringes. The sting comes from the venom contained within the trichomes: a combination of histamine, serotonin, and formic acid (similar to the venom injected by biting Formica ants). The pain is a sharp, tingling sting, and on my skin, a brush with nettle results in small white bumps with reddish swelling. Scratching worsens the prickly bite, as it only works those dastardly needles and venom deeper into the dermis.

To avoid this, one should always wear gloves when picking nettles, use a salad spinner and tongs to wash them, and then steam or blanch the greens in salted water to neutralize the venom before eating. Cooked nettles impart no sting whatsoever.

Nettles in the woods.

The flavor of stinging nettles is hard to describe. When I was pregnant (and taking nettles for the iron and vitamins), I could swear they smelled fishy. It turns out I’m not the only who thinks this; plenty of pregnant women complain of this on reviews of various prenatal supplements that contain nettle.

I did a little digging (pardon the pun) and found out that the roots of nettles smell of ammonia. Ammonia and fishy odors are both caused by trimethylamine. In low concentrations, it has a fishy odor; in higher concentrations, an ammonia odor. This is just an unsubstantiated hunch, though — I couldn’t find any literature that suggests Urtica contains noticeable amounts of trimethylamine.

This slightly fishy odor tends to dissipate somewhat when nettles are cooked. Nonetheless, I tend to stick to using them for very savory foods like pesto (subbing a wad of blanched nettles for half the basil) and gratins (using nettles instead of kale or Swiss chard), where liberal amounts of garlic and cheese will effectively mask any off-putting aroma.

I guess I’d say the flavor is somewhat like a more iron-rich spinach, if that makes any sense. Nettles taste like fortification and hale nutriment; like grass-blood, in plant form.

I hope you live near some wet woods or a soft streambank. If you don’t, then maybe you’ll be inspired to take a drive to the country for a free taste of fecundity straight from nature’s produce section. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet, and you might find yourself a tasty dinner.

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1. by Becky Lerner on Feb 13, 2011 at 1:16 AM PST

Heather,

Thanks for this great post on nettles! I’m off to share it with my Twitter followers.

I would like to add that a great sustainable way to harvest nettles that ensures they’ll continue to produce food for the next forager is to use scissors to harvest them, so that you cut just the top few inches and allow it to fall into a well-placed bag. As a bonus, this method means you don’t need to wear gloves!

Cheers,

Your fellow Portland forager,

Becky of http://FirstWays.com

2. by Heather Arndt Anderson on Feb 14, 2011 at 12:01 PM PST

Thanks, Becky. That’s a good tip. I never cut them all the way at the bottom - I snip just the apical tips which encourages axillary growth, resulting in a bushier, more productive plant. I still always wear gloves. :)

3. by Jan Steinman on Feb 14, 2011 at 3:01 PM PST

The brave can even eat raw nettles! The trick is to carefully fold them so the spines are within, gather up a bunch of saliva in your mouth, then immerse them and chew them up -- delicious!

I’ve only been stung a couple times out of hundreds of episodes of raw nettle eating.

I don’t know why saliva neutralizes the sting, perhaps saliva’s alkalinity neutralizes the formic acid.

The seeds are also delicious, and don’t seem to sting. They have a mucilaginous quality, and are said to be an adrenal tonic.

Finally, nettles also have strong, durable fibres. You can use the stems much as you would flax. You have to rinse away the non-cellulitic material, easily done by putting bundles of the stems in a stream, weighted down with a rock.

4. by Chef Matt on Feb 16, 2011 at 7:02 AM PST

Love using nettles. My first experience with them was when my chef asked me to bring them in to make stinging nettle spaetzle. I never knew you could eat them, but the dish was wonderful, and I’ve been using them ever since!

But as for eating them raw - well, you’re braver than me! :)

5. by anonymous on Feb 16, 2011 at 3:34 PM PST

Wow, if you could pass along that recipe for stinging nettle spaetzle I would be eternally grateful. What a fantastic combination!

6. by Kathryn Yeomans on Feb 16, 2011 at 4:56 PM PST

I just enjoyed my first of the season nettles, they were tiny, but very rich. I also find that they have an -of the sea- quality, but think of it as more of a seaweed than fish flavor. A strong mineral, very green flavor.

If you par-boil your nettles in unsalted boiling water, you can lift them out, then strain and drink the “tea”, and also have the vegetable to eat. If you salt the blanching water, you can use the water to cook rice or as a nutrient-rich soup broth. Either way, you get 2-for-1 with nettles!

Jan - I’ve noticed that mature nettles, later in the season, also bring an okra-esque mucilaginous quality to the resulting dish.

If you’re not down with the foraging, you can always do what I do and pick some up at the Farmers Markets in the spring - there are a few vendors that will do the harvest work for you!

7. by Chef Matt on Feb 16, 2011 at 7:28 PM PST

Here is my recipe for stinging nettle spaetzle:

2 cups AP Flour
2 each eggs
1 cup milk
TT salt and pepper
1/2 cup chopped blanched stinging nettles
1 Tbsp XVO

Method:
-Pour flour into bowl, make well in the center. Mix eggs and milk in well of flour, and slowly incorporate into flour. Mix thoroughly.
-Let dough rest in fridge for at least 1 hour
-Season to taste with salt and pepper, and mix in chopped blanched stinging nettles. Let rest at room temperature for at least another ½ hour, up to 1½ hours.
-Bring large pot of salted water to a boil, place perforated hotel pan over pot.
-Pour batter into hotel pan, then use bench scraper to push all the dough through the perforations into the boiling water below.
-Cook briefly until spaetzle is floating, then remove from water, using a spider, into a large bowl with XVO in it.
-Toss spaetzle in bowl to coat with oil, then pour out onto sheet pan to cool.

So you would cook the nettles as people describe above, then chop them, and mix them in. If you don’t have a perforated hotel pan - as few of us do, you can use a food mill with the largest holes. And to serve, toss them with fresh high quality olive oil. It’s wonderful!

8. by anonymous on Feb 17, 2011 at 1:39 AM PST

Frittata, and especially risotto are out of this world when made with nettles.

9. by cafemama on Feb 17, 2011 at 3:45 PM PST

ooh, stinging nettle spaetzle! I must try it. I’ve been eating stinging nettles for the past year and have discovered that they’re a fabulous way to test the mettle of your dinner & lunch guests. my brother-in-law demurred; a friend, nervously, dove in to try my stinging nettle pesto pasta. I do it without basil, but with lots of sour cream or creme fraiche, and it’s wonderful.

10. by Barbara Lamb on Feb 18, 2011 at 7:08 AM PST

It must be in another Euell Gibbons book that he remembers the incantation from his childhood: “Nettles in, Dock out, Dock in, Nettles out”. This intoned while rubbing crushed burdock leaves onto skin stung by nettles. It works! There is some evidence, though, that voluntarily rubbing nettles on sore joints (urtication) relieves arthritis.

I love nettle tea as an early spring pick-me-up.

11. by Jan Steinman on Feb 18, 2011 at 9:14 AM PST

Barbara Lamb, thanks for the dock idea.

When I was a kid in Michigan, we always used jewelweed, but it apparently doesn’t grow here in British Columbia -- but dock does!

12. by Heather Arndt Anderson on Feb 19, 2011 at 1:45 PM PST

Barbara, I think he meant dock (as in Rumex spp.), not burdock (as in Arctium spp.). Dock does work great!

Jan, I’m pretty sure jewelweed does grow in BC - I’ve seen it growing all over western Oregon and Washington, and it’s listed by the USDA PLANTS database as growing from California all the way north to Alaska.

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