Stinging nettles often inspire fear in the home cook. Years ago, at a reading about the book Grains + Greens: Recipes for Deliciously Healthful Meals, the Q & A devolved into a series of nettles questions best summed up as: “But, no, really, are they going to poison me? Are you sure? Are you super sure?”
The arrival of certain produce offers an anchor to the present, a demarcation between winter and spring, a clear sign that a full year has passed since the last time you ate this. Here is Spring, 2017. You are exactly where you are, you are living the life you currently live, and one day this will be a string of memories. A bag of nettles is an announcement. Here is a moment to disrupt the haze of day to day life, and the moment is coated in a danger you can tame.
Risk is delicious, and what’s better than taking a risk in the sanctuary of your own kitchen? Like a lot of culinary risk taking, the big reveal is that you had nothing to worry about. Stinging nettles are about as easy to handle as spinach. As long as you’re wearing gloves while they’re raw, these prickly heart-shaped leaves are not the challenging nemesis they’re made out to be. As we emerge from root vegetable winter, I want as much fresh green color on my plate as possible. Enter nettles: The lost green, poised for its annual springtime comeback.
Nettles grow wild in the spring and are easily foraged. Make sure your skin is completely covered as you forage, and only pick the top four leaves of the nettle. If you’re not on the hunt for nettles in the wild, you can often find them at farmers market or even some grocery stores.
No matter where you procure your nettles, keep your hands covered when the leaves are raw. Handling raw nettles without gloves or tongs can result in rash and welts. Nettle stings are not poisonous, just deeply unpleasant. Remove the stems and use only the leaves when you cook. Boiling water tames the nettles and takes the sting out of their spiny bristles.
Embark on a leafy adventure by trying one of these five ways to cook with nettles.
Nettles have an earthy, deep green taste that’s akin to spinach. Much like spinach, they can be prepared simply and contribute to whatever is hurtling towards your plate. Fold them into scrambled eggs or hot pasta, lace them with caramelized onions, bake them with béchamel and top them with brown buttered breadcrumbs. The addition of garlic, salt, lemon, and shallots transforms nettles into a simple side dish or bright, unexpected addition to your favorite spring recipe. They look completely familiar. They are an example, sitting and steaming on your plate, of how a fear faced can wilt into everyday life, no longer occupying your brain or keeping your hands in powdery rubber gloves.
You’ve taken the sting out of something that can hurt you, turned foe into delicious friend. Give it a dish that celebrates the nettle, a focused meditation eaten with a spoon. Moss-green and nettle-centered, this soup gives you the full nettle experience, unhampered by outside flavors. It’s both hearty and full of Spring, a nice combination in the tricky weeks where the cold can sneak back in for a few hours or days.
“In folklore, nettles are said to dispel darkness and fear and to strengthen the will,” says Beth Kirby. It’s like a soul spring-cleaning. You can Kon Mari every room in your house, but doesn’t it sound lovely to instead dispel the internal rain cloud as you feel your will take root and flourish? I hate stroking all of my book spines to figure out if they give me joy. Better to banish the gunk of winter while preserving this first glimpse of Spring. This syrup can last you through the summer, when the next batch of nettles pops up for a final revival. The banishment of bad energy certainly calls for a drink.
Nettles always grow in groups. They are generous. You need only cut off their top few leaves and they’ll happily regrow. They are small but mighty, full of abundance. You can buy them at a farmer’s market by the sackful. Maybe you would like to open all your windows. Maybe you would like to call all of your old friends and most of your new ones. Maybe, once in a while, the day is full of sun and you haven’t been stung and, armed with your trusty nettles, you can bake a pizza with garlic cream and invite everyone over to share it. If you can tame a nettle, you can do anything. You’ve taken a risk, accomplished a new feat — now fill your table and rejoice.
I’m a firm believer in the reset recipe. Pick a giant, multi-step recipe that anchors you to the present, sharpens your mind into a series of small tasks, then feeds you heartily. Here is a perfect reset recipe for you, newly minted nettles expert. You will turn your nettles into homemade gnuddi, a jumble of ricotta clay turned green by your prickly wares. You’ll sous vide duck. You’ll reduce rhubarb, adding even more all-caps SPRING to the flavorful mix. This isn’t for special occasions; it is a special occasion.