Taking the Sting out of Nettles
“Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”
--William Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1.
I was taken foraging on my first full day in Alaska. Looking back now, it seems obvious and fitting that my introduction to the state would be about the land and its bounty. Picking salmonberries on a roadside, we were standing in the shadow of Cordova’s Mount Eyak, ringed with low clouds. Over the berry bushes and fireweed blossoms, we could see Orca Inlet. A boy rode by on a bicycle with two silvers slung over his shoulder.
Now, living in Juneau nearly nine years later, my year is an almanac of wild edibles. The changing seasons and the growing and fading light are punctuated by tender green shoots, blossoms, berries, and mushrooms.
Nettles mark the start of my foraging year. Depending on the weather and the state of thaw, the first green leaves can appear in Juneau as early as April. Those of us who care about nettles here all seem to share the same generous patch close to the center of town. But there’s no need to be secretive or stingy--this “weed” thrives on being picked.
Urtica dioica, or “stinging nettle,” loves disturbed ground. It appears in nearly every part of the northern hemisphere. My favorite spot to find it is in an avalanche chute. Nettles can share turf with salmonberries and fireweed, twisted stalk, and wild violet. The early, tender leaves are the most desirable. Most botanists suggest taking just the top four leaves.
I bring a small pair of scissors, and I wear gloves. Occasionally, or even often, in my spring exuberance, I’ll find myself picking bare-handed. The result for me is a bright, buzzy sensation in my fingers, but some people may react more strongly with rashes and irritation, so do wear gloves when working with nettle.
Nettle is rich in vitamins A, C, D, and E as well as calcium, iron, and potassium. Despite its legendary sting, it is quite edible. Historically, it’s been used to make beer and cheese (it’s a natural rennet), and the stems are used as a strong fiber like flax. The irritant is defeated by drying and by heat--so blanching, steaming, and baking are all suitable preparations. Once I began to see nettles as a nutrient-packed green, it appeared that its uses were endless: stir fries, steaming, lasagne, soups, smoothies, tea. Recently, I met a bartender who makes nettle bitters. She infuses the dried leaves in alcohol, then adds a bittering agent like grapefruit rinds to make wild flavorings for cocktails. It’s on my list to try this spring.
When nettles are in their prime, it’s possible for me to collect too much--not because I don’t have uses for them, but because the cleaning and sorting takes more time than I might have in an evening, and they wilt quickly. So take what you can process in a day, then go back for more.
To prepare nettles, wash them gently and dry in a salad spinner, discard any damaged leaves, and pull the leaves off the stems. To dry them for tea, or for gomashio (see recipe) I leave them on paper towels on a cooling rack, and just let them air-dry for a few days. When they’re completely dried, they can be stored in an airtight container.
Nettle Pesto is probably my favorite non-recipe:
Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch as many nettles as you’d like to use for about one minute. Drain and squeeze out excess water. Don’t discard this nettle “tea”. You can drink it or use it in recipes--it’s full of nutrients.
In a food processor, place nettles, a handful of nuts, a clove or two of garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkling of salt. Whiz until bright green and smooth. Taste, and adjust quantities to your liking. Freeze in a small mason jar or in ice cube trays--I find two ice cubes full of pesto per person is just about right for dressing pasta.
Roasted Nettle Chips
Last year, I found myself eating far too many packages of kale chips, which led me to experiment with creating a foraged version. Here’s a wild-foods take on packaged chips, these are a bit more delicate, but just as addictive to snack on.
One gallon plastic bag filled loosely with nettle leaves
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon paprika
Preheat oven to 300º F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Sort, wash, and thoroughly dry nettle leaves using a salad spinner if possible. Remove the stems.
In a bowl, toss nettle leaves with oil, salt, nutritional yeast, and paprika.
Spread nettle leaves in a single layer--no overlapping--on the baking sheet. This is a key step, because it allows them to crisp. Bake in multiple batches if necessary.
Bake for 5 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet, bake for 5 more minutes. Leaves will darken, but should not burn. Store in a cool dry place.
Gomashio has always been one of my favorite seasonings. It’s a Japanese seasoning made with sesame seeds “goma” and salt “shio.” It’s often made with seaweed, and this version takes advantage of the fact that when dried, nettles have a subtle “seaweedy-ness.”
1 cup hulled sesame seeds
1 loose handful of dried nettle leaves
3 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
Toast the sesame seeds for 2-3 minutes in a dry pan on the stove top until they start to turn golden and smell fragrant. Allow to cool.
In food processor, mix toasted sesame seeds, nettle leaves, and sea salt.
Blend until nettle leaves are crumbled. Store in an airtight container, and freeze what you won’t use up quickly.
You can sprinkle gomashio on just about anything. I love it in stir fry, on rice, and especially on wild Alaska salmon.