Flowering stinging nettles - photos by Zachary Cross
Eat stinging nettles? Who would want to do that? As it turns out, they can be eaten safely and they have both culinary and medicinal benefits.
Nettles are a springtime dish, best only until June in our climate. They’re a distant relative of mint and could be confused at first sight. Unlike mint, they are covered with hollow stinging hairs which can inject skin with chemicals if they are touched. These chemicals cause a stinging sensation. Interestingly, nettles are also a remedy for allergies as well as other autoimmune disorders. Whether eaten or drunk as an tea, the components that cause the sting can also help the body’s histamine and other inflammatory reactions to calm down.
Dead nettle is more closely related to mint than stinging nettles. It gets its name from its resemblance to stinging nettles but without the sting it is “dead.” Like stinging nettles it has medicinal and culinary value and is found at the market in season.
Stinging nettles are also full of nutrients, including a high level of protein for a green. They can be added to a mix of greens in a sauté, in a soup, in very green baked goods, or as pesto. Cooking takes away the sting and makes it safe to eat. However, folks come from all over the world to enter the Nettle Eating Championship in Dorset England and see if they can eat the most amount of the raw, still stinging plant.
Watch out for those stingers!
If you’re not interested in the sting you’ll want to handle your nettles carefully. Your farmer may have already washed them for you - ask! If not, wash them like any other green, but use tongs or a pasta server to transfer them from the water. I’ve read that soaking them in water takes away the sting, but I’ve always parboiled. Three to five minutes is plenty of time to neutralize the stingers. Save the cooking water and drink it as a spring tonic, alone or mixed with another herb tea like mint. If you are not accustomed to nettles, start small! Drink just a little per day at first and work your way up. Nettles can be somewhat laxative, and the dose varies from person to person.
Once your leaves are not a hazard, you can add them to any meal you’d use spinach in. The flavor is equally mild but I find the texture to be lacking. I typically mix it with other spring greens if I’m using it in a sauté. I was excited to try nettle pesto as I figured that would eliminate any issues with the texture. This recipe is from Suzanna Alexander of Alexzanna Farms and is very flexible. Use nuts and cheese you have on hand. I substituted green garlic, too, for the regular garlic. A great thing about nettle pesto is its color. Unlike basil pesto it stayed a bright green, even after a few days in the refrigerator.
Note again that nettles can have a laxative effect. This is not usually a problem with the small amount of pesto used in a pound of pasta. It’s so yummy, though, beware the temptation to eat a whole bowl of it as a dip!
From Suzanna Alexander, Alexzanna Farms
4 cups fresh nettle tops - roughly chopped
⅔ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup nuts of your choice (I used ½ almonds, ½ pecans in my last batch...yum!)
2-6 cloves of garlic according to taste
¼ cup Romano or Parmesan cheese (optional)
(Remember: Parboil nettles for 3-5 minutes, drain.)
Put all ingredients into food processor and process until creamy, making sure all the nettles are incorporated. That’s it! What an incredible taste!
Not only is it good on the traditional pasta, but the pesto makes a wonderful spread on toast or crackers. Also good as a dip. (Note from Heather: watch your portions till you know your tolerance level!) It freezes well.
Printable recipe here
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