One way we can contribute to a sustainable environment is to honor the bounty that already exists in nature. In other words, forage for food instead of buying it at the grocery store (which here in the Netherlands is always wrapped in plastic). We eat a lot of greens in our household. So, when spring comes, it is a pleasure to profit from nature’s offerings and pluck them from the fields. In our climate, stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are abundant by late April. Since ancient times, they have been a staple in herbal medicine and a delicious food item on the dinner plate. They are rich sources of vitamin A, C, K, and B and contain antioxidant properties. Nettles are also naturally rich in protein (the highest amount by weight for any plant) and iron, calcium, mg, zinc, and other minerals. You can check out all the benefits in this article from the Journal of Herbal Medicine.
First stop for anything forage-related is the website of Alan Bergo, the deity of foraging chefs. If you don’t know Alan, I encourage you to carve out some time to get lost within his website. His photos are stunning, his recipes creative and create-able, his discussions entertaining and absorbable, not to mention relevant, and his knowledge immense. I have his first book, The Forager’s Chefs Book of Flora which you can purchase here. And I highly recommend doing so!
For numerous recipes and to learn everything there is to know about nettles, check out his webpage on nettles. But for the quick and dirty, keep reading below.
One way we can contribute to a sustainable environment is to honor the bounty that already exists in nature.
To harvest stinging nettles, I don a long-sleeved shirt and garden gloves which are more than enough to protect me from the plant's protective sting. I cut the top few leaves with the stem and then the lower few by themselves. I prefer to eat only the most tender part of the plant, so only harvest the top five layers. And by being so precise, I save myself the effort of processing the plant in my kitchen: my basket of leaves goes directly to the colander, where I rinse them. Then I can immediately transfer them to the pot or pan on the stovetop. Extra slicing or dicing of these stinging plants is unnecessary when I do it neatly at the place of harvest.
If using the nettles for smoothies, baked goods, or later (fresh nettles don't last long in the fridge), I will steam them first. Otherwise, I don't bother, as the cooking process in the recipe will remove the sting for safe consumption. I note this because most recipes call for you to blanch or steam them first, even if you cook them later. 🤔 To retain the flavor, I recommend steaming over blanching as some water-soluble compounds are lost in the water, diminishing both the flavor and nutrient profiles. Interestingly, you could even eat nettles fresh as in Turkey, where they make a salad in which they crush the sting out of the nettle with a rolling pin!
Treat stinging nettles like any other green: in smoothies, sautéed, thrown into a stir-fry or pasta sauce, made into a soup, and cooked with batter into muffins. I am throwing nettles into more and more dishes, mainly because a stinging nettle's flavor is extremely subtle – you barely taste them, so it won’t affect a recipe’s essence. But the nutrient value is so dense that you gain tremendously by adding them to your standard recipes.
Throw them in any broth soup you are making. I find it particularly yummy in fish soups as the delicate flavor of the nettle is well-infused into white fish. Puree them in a cream soup like this rich green option. She describes it as a bowl licker – I couldn’t agree more! I have tried it with coconut milk and a bit of curry powder for an Indian twist.
I fill my French press with the nettles and pour boiling water a couple of centimeters from the brim. Let it sit for a few hours, then press the water through. I then put it in the fridge for a refreshing cold drink as it is getting warm here. But you can also enjoy it hot. To add variety, I layer in sage, mint leaves, or lemon verbena (or all of the above!). You can also make a cold infusion by pouring room temperature water over the leaves, letting them sit overnight, and then refrigerating. You may notice a flavor difference.
As a standalone veggie sautéed with garlic, salt, and oil or thrown into a stir-fry, stinging nettles are a perfect replacement for your favorite sautéed green. The texture is slightly different – not as rigid as spinach or broccoli rabe leaves – so you will notice a softer consistency on your tongue. Here are some great ideas for recipes.
And speaking of forging, oddly enough, I found this spinach plant on the field next to our house – it must have been a runaway seed! So, I harvested it and added it to our evening dinner greens.
Now the Lambs-Quarters – aka wild spinach - are starting to come in. We will be eating those similar to the stinging nettles, but no gloves required. And of course, I will be referencing Alan’s website to find recipes, such as this enticing one for a Lamb Quarter dip – yum!