A few days ago I was exploring the woods on Mount Royal with a friend when my hand brushed against a patch of stinging nettle. It’s funny how memory works.
As soon as I realised that it was nettle that had stung me I was transported back to regular field outings on the mountain a few years ago with a herbalist friend of mine. Mont Royal is rich with nettles and she would harvest them for food and health.
I still fondly remember her nettle soup; although I have less fond memories of nettle tea which she insisted would tame my allergies as long as I drank a cup a day starting a few weeks before allergy season.
So in honour of my friend and our Montreal landmark greenspace, this week’s ingredient is stinging nettle. Now, I have to clarify that I have not cooked with the plant myself. Although now I have collected all this information about cooking nettles, I completely intend to give it a try!
Stinging nettles are a leafy green plant that can grow up to 7 feet tall. They grow in clusters with deep, intertwining roots; consequently you will often find them on slopes where they are useful to prevent erosion. The leaves and stems are hairy. Some of the hairs are hollow and contain a mixture of chemicals that sting when the plant is touched in a way that the hairs break. (My friend had a mind-blowing way of handling nettles bare-handed with care in a way that didn’t break the venomous hairs.)
The stings go away in time, but they are painful so wear gloves when you harvest your nettles. Nettles also produce small green/yellow flowers.
Both the leaves and stems of nettles are edible. To remove the sting, soak the plant in cold water. It can then be eaten raw or cooked. Stinging nettles are rich in iron and also contain vitamins A and C, potassium, manganese, and calcium. Spring nettles are best both for nutrition and flavour.
Later on in the season, only the top of the plants are really edible. Once the plant has flowered, nettle leaves should be avoided since they develop gritty particles that can irritate the urinary tract.
According to British chef Denis Cotter in his fabulous book Wild Garlic, Gooseberries, and Me, “nettles can be used in any way that suits simple greens such as spinach. Once boiled, cooled and chopped, they are good in egg dishes, risotto, pasta, as a cream sauce or as a flavouring for gnocchi.”
He’s heard of nettle used in salad but hasn’t tried this himself. In his book he offers a recipe for nettle risotto and another for nettle and potato gnocchi with sage, walnuts and Cratloe Hills sheep’s cheese that looks delicious.
Here are some nettle recipes from around the world wide web. Enjoy! And if you try any, please let me know how they turn out.
- Nettle and basil soup by herbalist Bruce Burnett
- Risotto of nettles and wild herbs by Chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
- Nettle walnut pesto crostini by Chef Ryan Hardy
- Spinach-nettle omelet with onion soubise from Martha Stewart
- Nettle beer from The Evening Hereault blog
Have you harvested and cooked with nettles before? Would you? Share your thoughts and stories!