Beauty and the Beast

by Sarah West


Wild foods are not for everyone. Their collection can be perilous—from the ruggedness of the landscapes where they grow to the ambiguities of accurate identification—and their flavors are often bold. Wild foods, even in romanticized print, sound wild, as if they belong to a more ancient version of ourselves, relics from leaner times. Herbal medicine maintains an appreciation for their complex chemistry, but we have otherwise written them off as a novelty food, if we consider them food at all.

Perhaps no single wild plant both satisfies and challenges the contemporary reputation of wild foods as much as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). A weedy perennial found on every continent but Antarctica, nettles have long been collected for food, medicine, and fiber. Their use can be traced deep into human history—samples of nettle cloth have been found in Bronze Age excavations—and fragments of their extensive lore linger today. Nettle extracts are used in some commercial soaps and shampoos, and nettle tea is marketed as a popular natural remedy for spring allergies.

Go to pick a stinging nettle and it will remind you of its wildness. Covered with the botanical equivalent of hypodermic needles, nettles insert irritants under the skin, causing welts that can last for days. They prefer rich soils near streams, wetlands and moist woodland and meadows, with a wider range in regions with abundant rainfall.

In the kitchen, their sting is easily tamed. Boiling or steaming the leaves for a few minutes, letting them soak in cold water overnight, or laying them out to dry until brittle are simple techniques to nullify their irritants and transform nettles into a versatile ingredient. Nettles become bitter (and less nutritious) the longer they are cooked. Short blanching times (3-5 minutes) yield the tastiest greens, as tender as the finest spinach but with a more complex flavor profile: nutty and rich with a fresh, surprising sweetness not unlike a cucumber’s.

Nettle’s intense flavor goes a long way, making it an excellent component in creamy soups and sauces, including the popular nesto (nettle pesto). Its silky texture and richness give depth to starches like polenta, risotto, noodles and gnocchi. Nettles may stand in for all or part of the spinach in recipes such as spanakopita or Aloo. Dried leaves can be steeped for tea, or crumbled into powder and used as a seasoning.

We would all do well to incorporate nettles into our diet, as they are an unusually rich source of nutrients. Fresh leaves contain up to 20% protein (dried leaves up to 40%)—more than any other known leafy green—and as a source of essential amino acids, nettles are comparable to beans and chicken meat. A hundred grams of fresh nettle leaves (a generous ½-cup blanched) contains 100% of our daily vitamin-A requirements as well as 46% of our daily calcium, 20% of our daily fiber and 10% of our daily iron.

Water from soaking, steeping or blanching nettle leaves (used both internally and externally) is a traditional skin and hair treatment, purportedly soothing dry skin or strengthening and adding shine to your locks.

As wild foods go, nettles are an extraordinary package: an accessible flavor profile, an impressive catalog of medicinal applications, and a nutritional range and concentration not found in any other leafy vegetable. Their unwelcoming exterior gives way to a wealth of resources, not the least of which is their culinary prowess. A recent foraging expedition yielded a batch of leek and nettle sauce at my house (roasted leeks processed with blanched nettle leaves, some of their blanching water, oil, salt and pepper to make a smooth, bright green puree) that lent stunning visual contrast and botanic zest to a grilled filet of halibut.

As their popularity grows, nettles have become increasingly available to those less interested in the wilderness side of wild foods, popping up more and more at area restaurants, farmers markets and specialty groceries. Their window of availability is brief, however, and the time is now for fresh nettle leaves, whose harvests will wind down by mid-May in our area.

If food is medicine, nettles offer more than their weight in nutritional gold, flavors more beautiful than appearance suggests and a motto that matches the fickleness of spring: take caution, be bold, enjoy with abandon.