At this time of year, on the west coast of BC, a lot of people, myself included pick and use stinging nettles as a super food, high in vitamins. Seriously. We do. The sting in stinging nettles is caused by tiny hairs on the plant, which no longer sting after the nettle is dried or cooked.
Some people use nettles for tea, they boil the nettle and then drink the water. I prefer stinging nettle as a vegetable, not unlike spinach, but with a more potent, wild flavor. I love the stinging nettle, it is one of the first foods available in spring. As the winter storms blow endlessly on, with driving wind and rain, we go to beaches to watch the big waves smashing driftwood into smithereens along the shoreline, and I watch the bushes and roadsides intently for that first sign of spring, the stinging nettles, poking their way up from the ground. The first shoots are the best. I pick them until they become tough, sometime in May. I pick only the tops once they grow big though, or selectively harvest individual leaves. The stems become excessively tough and were once used to make fibers and rope that was of strong, durable quality. You can see how this happened if you attempt to cook and eat them at this point.
I have made nettle beer, which is supposed to be medicinal and healthy. I didn’t like it very much and ended up giving most of it away. This recipe, along with a lot of information about the value of nettles is in Susan Weed’s wise woman herb book.
One of the most basic things I did during my years on the road as a teenager was dry both nettles and dandelion greens to make my often convenient and instant, cheap food a little more nutritional and flavorful. I made a sort of spice blend for the various types of Kraft dinner and instant noodles I was eating at the time, with nettle flakes, dandelion greens, engavita yeast flakes, Parmesan cheese and cyanne pepper. This was my universal noodle spice. I carried it in my purse and added it to bland soups and sandwiches, or the many bowls of instant Mr Noodles I was stuck eating during this era of my life. Anyway, the dishes I make with stinging nettles and pasta have evolved significantly since those hard times when I was just setting out on the independent roads of life and my choices to have wild vegetables and greens came about because I could neither afford, nor store, the regular kind.
These days, I make stinging nettle lasagna, and stinging nettle spanakopita, stinging nettle dip and stinging nettle soups. But dried stinging nettle leaves are a staple in my food supply and I dry large amounts each year to sprinkle into soups, sauces and just about everything, adding a super green food that has A, B, C, E, F K and P, as well as trace mineral your body needs like iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium and silica.
To dry nettles, spread them on screens near your stove, heat registers or with a space heater blowing over them, or in the sun. You could put them in the racks of your dehydrator until the hairs no longer sting and the leaves can be crumpled into flakes by hand. Store in shaker bottles for convienent use. If it is out and easy to use, you will find yourself adding it to dishes where it will be good.
To harvest nettles, find a patch and go when the patch has grown to about knee height with some smaller nettles coming up. Wear gloves and use scissors. You can pick nettles with your hands, and by breaking off the stem under the first 4 leaves, but it is more likely that you will pull up the whole plant by the roots using this method and kill it, we don’t really want to do that. Stems left in the ground will regrow another top and live to bear their seeds, thus not depleting the nettle patch with your careful harvesting. Cut the top leaves off of every 5th plant at the most. This is especially important if you are picking nettles in an urban or well populated area where there may be other people wanting nettles from the same patch, and it is respectful to the plant and group of plants living its life. It is also of utmost importance if the nettle patch is quite small and thinned out. But there are lots of places where there are miles of nettles in all directions, so one rarely needs to pick from a patch that is sparse where this would be a problem.
To cook the nettles, put 1 inch of water in a saucepan with a lid. Turn on the heat and stuff in as many nettles as you can fit in the pot and put the lid down. The nettles steam in the pot with just a little bit of water. They shrink to half their size. You can add more nettles after they shrink to ensure you have enough to make what you would like. Be sure not to let it boil dry.
If you would like more “nettle tea” which is essentially what the water you steam your nettles in becomes, you may add more water. Boiling your rice, noodles or potatoes in nettle tea gives some of the flavour and some of the vitamins present in the nettles to the other food being cooked. Pasta may take on a green tint, but valuable vitamins are being added. However, if your nettles are picked near a road, you may want to discard this tea and not use it. The steaming process cleans the nettles, but what it cleaned off of them will be in the water.
Rinse the nettles off once they are steamed, after about 4 or 5 minutes, chop them up and use as you would for spinach, except that the flavor is a lot stronger than spinach.
Here is a recipie
Steam a pot full of stinging nettles, reserving water for boiling pasta if clean.
Saute in a pan garlic and oinion in olive oil mixed with another cooking oil of a higher temperture rating, such as sunflower or grapeseed oil.
Add cooked nettles and saute in the now garlic and onion flavored oil for about 5 to 10 minutes, meanwhile, boil pasta in nettle water, with oil and salt added. I recommend spaghetti or vermicelli for this dish.
Add salt and pepper to the pan with your nettles,
In a bowl mix up some wine with yoghourt and Parmesan cheese. Mix in nutritional yeast flakes and cyanne pepper to taste.
When the pasta is done, rinse it off under cold water and then add to sauteing mixture. Save some of the nettle water in case additional liquid is needed.
Add the pasta to the sauteing mixture.
At this point, capers, if you have them could be added.
A splash of wine would be a good idea in the sauteing pan at this time, either red or white, whichever you may happen to be sipping on as you cook. If you are not having wine, a good balsamic vinegar would be appropriate in the dish here as well. (even if wine is present, it is still good to use both)
Mix the pasta with the nettles, garlic and oil. Then add the yoghourt Parmesan mixture and mix it in so that each noodle is coated with it, adding wine and the nettle pasta water as necessary so nothing is getting burnt or sticking to the bottom. A dash of oregano at this point is a good idea as well.
Turn off the heat and let it sit covered for 5 minutes so the flavors can mix.
Dish it up in plates or bowls. This is Parmesan Nettles, the fine delicacy of a dish that evolved out of the humble beginnings of my survival food on the road of instant noodles with nettle Parmesan sprinkles. It is exquisite with a side dish of garlic oil fried spot prawns fresh from the traps, but stands up well on its own.
Feel free to try this dish and comment on what you think of it, or share stories of your own experiances with the mighty stinging nettle in the comments section below.