I'm sure that I unknowingly tripped over my fair share of stinging nettles as a kid playing in our backyard forest, thinking those temporary welts were the cost of being in the great outdoors. But it would take 34 years and a trip to Italy to meet, taste and get acquainted with the greatest weed I never knew existed. While studying at a cooking school in a small village in the Piedmont region, I was introduced to ortiche, the Italian word for nettles, which were growing on the side of the road, like weeds. Sergio, our chef instructor, insisted that we take advantage of the roadside bounty and put them into a risotto for the next day's lunch. I still remember my first date with that green weed in my bowl, now all dressed up and doing a dance on my tongue. Why I waited 14 years to cook again with nettles escapes me. But in the course of researching this story, I've made nettle risotto, pesto and soup, and I'm already thinking of doing it all over again.
If you've never done this nettle thing, grab a friend and do it right away. Mother Nature doesn't wait for us to get organized, and the nettle, well, she's likely in the dappled limelight of a forest near you right now, but if you dally, poof (!) she'll be long gone. With the nettle, you're not just cooking in the season. You're cooking in the moment.
Nettles are as old - if not older - as the Bible, where the plant is referenced at least four times. Some historians point to ancient Egypt as its historical birthplace, yet others are drawn to Bronze Age Austria, where nettle fabric was used in burial shrouds.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were particularly taken with the weed. Early Greek botanist Theophrastus (around 300 BCE) recommended nettles as a potherb to treat various ailments, and his colleague Hippocrates (as well as many of his followers) had dozens of nettle-focused remedies, from poison antidote to treatment for dog bites. Greek physician Dioscorides recommended nettles in his medicinal botany volume, Materia Medica (77-78 BCE), including applying crushed nettle leaves on the nostrils to treat nosebleeds.
First century Roman gastronome Apicius devoted a section to various species of nettle in De Re Coquinaria: "The female nettles, when the sun is in the position of Aries, is supposed to render valuable services against ailments of various kinds." (The Aries reference is to early spring when nettle leaves are young and tender.) And in his work De Simplicibus, second century Greek physician Galen recommended nettle leaves for treating various conditions, from asthma to pneumonia, gangrene to swelling.
It's unclear exactly when the British Isles discovered nettles in their woods, but Roman soldiers are said to have traveled with nettles to the UK to treat rheumatism in their legs resulting from their long journey.
It's widely agreed among historians that Native Americans used nettles for medicine and food, but also for textiles; the fiber, which is stronger than cotton and closely related to woven flax, was used to make twine, fishing nets and rope.
- Every spring, the townsfolk of La Haye-de-Routot, a small village in Normandy, host the Ortie-Folies festival (translation: "Nettle Madness"). Nettle aficionados in the UK have their Be Nice to Nettles Week, which this year will take place May 14-25. In June, extreme eaters can make their way to Dorset, home to a nettles eating contest at a local pub. (The nettles in question are raw!)
- Since 2003, the Russian town of Krapivna, which was named in honor of the plant (known in Russian as krapiva) has hosted a nettle festival, where it is the official town symbol.
- From the forest to folklore, the nettle has appeared in poetry, literature and song over the ages as a source of vitality and the answer to one's prayers. Two examples come to mind:
If they would drink nettles in March/And eat mugwort in May/So many fine maidens/Would not go to clay -- Funeral song of a Scottish mermaid
"With her soft hands she took hold of the dreadful nettles that seared like fire. Great blisters rose on her hands and arms, but she endured it gladly in the hope that she could free her beloved brothers. She crushed each nettle with her bare feet, and spun the green flax." -- This is from the 1838 fairy tale The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Anderson, the story of a princess named Elisa, who weaves coats of nettles to free her brothers who were turned into swans by their evil stepmother.
The stinging nettle is known in the plant world as Urtica dioica, a perennial herb and member of the extensive Urticaceae family. It grows wild in forests and woodlands, often near streams and rivers, throughout North America, Europe, parts of Asia, Russia and northern Africa. Not all nettles are stinging, but most, if not all, of what grows in North America is of the stinging variety.
Everyone talks about asparagus and ramps being the harbinger of spring, but nettles probably have them both beat. Depending on where you live, nettles start showing up in late winter and early spring. Although they don't mind the sun, they can't take the heat, so your first day above 90 degrees, you can wave those nettles bye-bye until fall.
Because nettles are a foraged, rather than commodity crop, there's no data on pesticide load, as per the Environmental Working Group's Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. To date, there are two ways to obtain nettles: By foraging in the wild or buying locally from a farmer who's doing the foraging for you. While it's fair to assume that by and large nettles have a relatively low pesticide load, keep in mind that roadside nettle beds may bear the brunt of vehicle emissions.
But the nettle, as a member of the botanical world, is an environmental steward. Forest rangers consider a nettle patch an indicator of high soil fertility. In the UK, it is considered one of the most important native plants for wildlife, as it is a source of food for all kinds of insects, butterflies, moths and birds, as well as an egg-laying haven for ladybugs, which of course keep other plant-eating aphids away.
In a shade of deep green, the nettle leaf is broad and pointy with edges like a fine-toothed comb, resembling an oversized mint leaf. In fact, nettle grows in similar fashion to mint; as the plant matures, the leaves sprout from the stem in towering fashion, and with age, the stem hardens and becomes more fibrous. The plant will flower little green buds, and those buds will harden. But the most distinctive characteristic of the nettle (at least the kind that grow in North America) is the notorious network of nearly invisible stinging hairs on the stems and the undersides of the leaves. The hairs, known as trichomes, contain a mixture of histamine, serotonin and formic acid, similar to the substance discharged by fire ants.
What to Look for
The best time to harvest nettles (or buy them from someone else who has harvested them) is when they're young and the stems are tender, before flower buds appear. Young plants will be shorter, about a foot tall (approximately knee high); older, tougher-leaved plants will be bushier and as tall as six feet. Upper leaves will likely be more tender. Choose foraging locations that are less likely to be sprayed with chemicals or contaminated by car emissions. When buying nettles, avoid signs of decay, such as browning or soggy leaves.
If ever there was a poster child for Food as Medicine, the stinging nettle is it. Certainly, it's plenty nutritious: One cup of blanched (parboiled) nettles contains six grams of fiber and more than two grams of protein, for just 37 calories. It's a good source of vitamins A and K, calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. It is also rich in chlorophyll, a known antioxidant and blood builder.
But the nettle goes way beyond the nutritional call of duty. As mentioned earlier, the stinging nettle has for millennia been revered as a botanical healer and used to treat numerous physical ailments that continue to intrigue medical researchers today. Naturally detoxifying and anti-inflammatory, nettles have been a traditional remedy for sundry conditions, gout, anemia and joint pain among them. It has long been a part of the Native American medicine chest, not only as a general tonic but to help during childbirth and reduce fevers.
In recent years, it has been studied for its potential in treating diabetes, seasonal allergies and pain associated with arthritis, as well as urinary problems resulting from an enlarged prostate. It's even being studied for its potential to treat livestock diseases.
What to Do with It
Go foraging! If you live near a forest or a stream or other swampy spots in temperate climates, you probably have nettles in your midst. Check out this informative how-to video with Seattle-based author and forager Langdon Cook.
First things first: Protect yourself from getting stung by wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirt, as well as heavy-duty gloves. In fact, until the nettles are briefly blanched (which neutralizes their sting), wear gloves while cleaning and storing. So, in case you were wondering: Nettles cannot be eaten raw (unless you're a nettle-eating contest fiend aware of the risks).
Nettles tend to be invasive, so if you'd like your own backyard stash, consider growing them in a pot.
Because nettles are rich in nitrogen, they make great fertilizer. Here's how to do it.
Once you get through the cleaning and blanching (aka sting removal) steps, most of the hard work is done. Like spinach and chard, the nettle is a quick-cooking green and presents many opportunities to get creative in the kitchen. There's nettle soup, sauce and pesto to consider. You can throw it into a fritatta or top off a pizza dough. It makes for terrific ravioli filling, or butter-braised, as a fun partner with short pasta.
Once picked, nettles are extremely perishable. They'll keep in the refrigerator for just a few days. Wrap in a towel then in a loosely tied plastic bag -- the double layer is a reminder of the stingers. If you've got more nettles than time on your hands, you can blanch nettles in salted boiling water for about a minute, drop in ice water, drain, then prep into bags for freezing. Place drained nettles in a kitchen towel and roll tightly, "like a candy wrapper," writes food blogger and cookbook author Hank Shaw. "One end twists one way, the other end twists the opposite way. Squeeeeze! More blue-green liquid runs out. Now you're done. You have prepped stinging nettles, ready to be frozen in a vacuum-seal bag or Ziploc, or cooked in any number of ways." You can also save the blanching water for stock and freeze for later, or dry nettle leaves for tea.
And remember: Until nettles are cooked, wear protective gloves while handling.
Nettle Risotto (Risotto alle ortiche)
Adapted from Made in Italy by Giorgio Locatelli
Kitchen notes: Very fine dice means the equivalent of baby food. You want the onions to practically melt into the rice. I prefer using a wide and shallow skillet, which makes both stirring and liquid absorption easier.
1⁄2 pound stinging nettles (approximately 6 cups)
6 to 8 cups vegetable or chicken stock
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, or a mix of butter and olive oil
1 medium-size yellow onion, diced very finely
2 cups short-grained Italian rice, such as Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano
1⁄2 cup white wine that you enjoy drinking
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt to taste
- Wash and prep the nettles: Wearing a pair of rubber gloves (or double layer of latex gloves), place the nettles in a large bowl of water and cover with cold water. Swish greens, then lift out of the water. Discard water and residual dirt, and repeat until the water looks clean. (This may take several rounds.) With gloves on, remove the stems and discard.
- Meanwhile, bring a medium-size pot of water up to a boil and add 2 teaspoons of salt. Transfer the nettle leaves to the salted boiling water and return the water to a boil. Cook for 30 seconds, then remove and drain under cold running water. With your hands, squeeze as much water out of the nettles as possible; you'll end up with a green ball about the size of a tennis ball.
- Place the cooked nettles in a food processor and puree. Add a few tablespoons of the cooking water if the mixture looks dry.
- Bring the stock up to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and keep hot until ready to use.
- Heat your risotto skillet over medium heat, and add the butter and/or oil, turning the pan until the fat coats the entire surface. Add the chopped onion, stir to coat with the fat, and cook over medium heat until soft (but not browned), 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the rice until coated with the onions and fat and "toast" for a minute or so. Pour in the wine and allow to evaporate until the onion and rice are dry.
- Add the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring often to keep the rice from sticking and helping it to release its starch for that creamy result. With each addition of liquid, you'll notice the rice transforming from hard pellets to creamy yet al dente morsels. Estimate about 25 minutes total cooking time after the first addition of liquid. At about minute 20, add the nettle puree and stir vigorously to incorporate. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, and ladle in stock as needed. The end result should be tender yet toothy, creamy and not too soupy.
- Reduce heat to low, and allow the risotto to rest for a minute.
- Finish the dish with the mantecatura (the addition of butter and cheese): Add the butter cubes, and vigorously stir until no longer visible, then add the cheese, shaking the skillet energetically as you stir it in.
Eat hot. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
This post was originally published in May 2014.