The first time I ate stinging nettle was in France, in a soup. We had stopped on the side of the road so my host could gather some. Veronique was just what you might imagine a French herbalist living in a stone house in Normandy would be like. I tasted the soup tentatively, then finished the whole bowl.
I came across nettle again a few months later, in a colder climate where spring was still lingering. We planned to serve nettles with gnudi at the farm dinner that evening. I wore gloves to pick off the stems, but even so, those fine stinging prickles poked through. My fingertips felt numb for two days. But the gnudi tasted delicious.
When I went walking through the rampant dame’s rocket this afternoon to get down to the river, I felt the familiar sting of the intermixed nettles through my thin pants. The flower has joined the nettles as possibly the most invasive species in the wooded area east and south of the farmhouse. I should have known they would join forces, but the bright flowers so distracted me that I didn’t become aware of the nettles in their midst until my legs were burning.
The positive part of that painful little stroll is it reminded me that I wanted to tell you about eating nettles. Nettles were one of my first wild food discoveries, other than the ordinary kid stuff like finding gooseberries or wild grapes growing on your farm and filling up buckets so you can bring them home jam. But nettles, in being less apparent, make you feel like you’re really foraging. Sorting through the green, knowing that something not immediately identifiable as food is actually very good for you.
Stinging nettles are past their prime eating stage now, unless you live farther north than Wisconsin. Generally it is best to eat them when they are young, and always before they start to flower. The ones I picked were already on the large side, and I had to sort out the bigger and tougher leaves.
The trick to taking out the sting? Either dry them or boil them for a quick 3 minutes. The hairlike prickles lose their sting and you’re left with a highly nutritious wild edible, that took you just a little effort to harvest, and no effort at all to grow.
So here’s the recipe: (1) Pick the small leaves and tips of nettles, wash them, pick off the stems, boil the water, toss in the nettles, time them, and then drain. (2) At the same time, make whatever pasta you fancy. (3) Chop the nettles and stir them into the pasta with plenty of butter, salt, pepper, and garlic, with a grating of a hard raw sharp cheddar on top. Anyway, that’s how I liked it!
You can also make a tea with nettles; it’s commonly used as a tonic, particularly for congestion and allergies. I’d suggest adding honey, of course . . .
If you have yards of (these incredibly invasive) nettles in the woods and they’ve passed the edible stage, another clever idea is to hack them down and toss them in your compost pile. We used our swanky new scythes to cut them back a few days ago. Nutrients!
For more on nettles, here’s an article I just popped across that gives you some additional info and uses.