Walking near the stream that separates the two 10-acre bottom-land fields of my brother Henry’s vegetable farm, I noticed a bed of dark green nettles about a foot tall — the perfect size for picking.
And although the soft green leaves of the overwintered spinach beckoned just a few steps away, I turned away from the spinach and toward the stream bank and the stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), heeding the irresistible call of the wild.
The first wild greens of spring have been highly valued by people around the world who knew they were good food and good medicine too. American Indians gathered nettles to boil and enjoy first thing in the spring when other food plants (including the “three sisters of life”: corn, beans and squash) were still weeks away from being planted, and months away from being harvested. In parts of Nepal and India, stinging nettles (shishnu) are gathered and cooked with Indian spices each spring. And a proverb in the dialect of people from Carrara, Italy, states: “Chi vo far ‘na bona zena, i magn‘un erb‘d‘tut la mena” — “Whoever wants a good supper should eat a weed of every kind.”
Most European countries consider nettles a “spring tonic” that purifies the blood. In Germany, where much current research on the medicinal properties of plants comes from, nettle leaf tea reportedly increases blood hemoglobin. Diuretic activity has been confirmed, and nettles are also thought to help stimulate blood circulation and have been used to clear chronic skin ailments. Some propose the nettle might even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease because it contains acetylcholine and choline, both deficient in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. It also contains serotonin, a mood enhancer, and boron and calcium, important for strong bones. Plus, if we are to believe a passage from the end of Gaius Petronius’ “Satyricon,” nettles were used to treat impotence in pre-Viagra days.
With all these beneficial aspects of nettles, you’d think there’d be masses of people out harvesting them each spring. But most wild greens are passively ignored or actively poisoned with herbicides. Luckily, there are a few high-end restaurants serving nettles, purslane, lamb’s quarters and amaranth greens, bringing them the attention and respect they deserve.
In fact, after a get-out-the-vote rally in Chicago last year, President Barack Obama stopped by Rick Bayless’ acclaimed Topolobampo restaurant. There, according to tweets from Bayless himself, the president ordered (among other things) sweet corn tamales with ricotta and nettles.
Take the sting out
Before you decide I’m just as crazy to suggest eating stinging nettles as Bayless is to serve them, let me assure you that cooking completely destroys the sting, because it destroys the delicate hair-like stinging structures. The tip of each hair is very brittle, and when your fingers or ankles brush against it, it breaks off, exposing a sharp point that penetrates the skin and delivers the sting. But boiling water makes the brittle hairs limp and soggy and completely unable to sting.
For many years that sting was thought to be formic acid, the same substance in the sting of red ants. But although formic acid is present in the nettle sting, recent research has shown that the main chemicals are histamine, acetylcholine, and 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin), all of which are good things.
If you are not yet a forager of wild things, nettles are a good entry green. They’re easy to recognize (if you are unsure, just brush up against them and they will tell you in no uncertain terms) and easy to prepare and enjoy. Nettles are similar to spinach when cooked, but denser, meatier and even richer than spinach in just about every nutrient from protein, to vitamins A and C, to minerals iron, potassium, manganese and calcium. And any dish you make with cooked spinach can be made with cooked nettles, from soup to vegetarian lasagna.
If you don’t want to scare your family or guests, just use the Italian name for nettles, ortiche (or-tea-kay). In Puglia and Fruili, they find their way into pasta and polenta, and in Rome, are most often found in risotto.
Foraged nettles, plain and simple
One of the simplest and best things to do with nettles is to boil them for five to 10 minutes, drain, and serve with olive oil or butter, and salt and pepper to taste. But before they get to the pot, here’s what to do:
Find a nettle patch. Look for dark green, pointed leaves growing in pairs on either side of a ribbed, hollow stem. If you’re not sure, just touch them, and if they bite back, they’re nettles.
Wear leather work gloves, and snip just the top 4 to 6 inches of the plants so you don’t need to worry about the stems, which are tender at the top but tougher near the ground.
When you get the greens home, fill a clean bucket or your sink with cold water. Wash the greens by stirring them in the water with a long-handled spoon. You may want to do this in a few changes of water if the plants seem dirty or sandy. Then use tongs to put them directly into a large saucepan with a tight cover. Cook gently (the water clinging to them is enough) for five to10 minutes.
Chop the drained greens if you like, and then mix with butter, olive oil, salt and/or pepper to taste.
Eat as a side dish, or use in soup, pasta, or any dish in which you would normally use spinach.
Pasta all’Ortiche (Fresh Nettle Pasta)
- Throw the nettles into salted boiling water for about 7 minutes.
- While they are cooking, put olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper into a frying pan over medium heat.
- Remove the cooked nettles from the boiling water and put into the frying pan. Sir and cook for a few minutes, until excess water has evaporated and the nettles are coated with oil.
- Use the water the nettles were boiled in to cook the pasta, adding more water if needed. When pasta is al dente, drain and toss with the cooked nettles.
- Serve with fresh grated Parmesan.
Nettles With Polenta
- Bring the water to a boil. Mix salt and cornmeal in a bowl. When the water is boiling, turn the heat down, and add the cornmeal in a steady stream, stirring constantly. When the cornmeal is suspended in the water (not settling on the bottom), cook about one hour at a bare simmer, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, cut the bacon in small pieces, fry in a sauté pan until crisp. Remove, and set aside. To the same sauté pan, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, and washed greens. Season, cover with a tight lid and cook 5 to 10 minutes.
- Drain the greens mixture and chop coarsely.
- Grate the cheeses and stir into the polenta. Serve alongside the greens.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Photo: Nettles. Credit: Terra Brockman