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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: Cardoons aren’t the only vegetable with built-in armor. Meet a green that can put up a fight.
Like some of our other vegetal friends, stinging nettles are considered a weed, and in some areas, not just a weed, but an invasive species. Livestock consider it unpalatable. Oh that that “stinging” bit? The little spines or hairs (1, below) found on the plant’s stems and underside of the leaves are very irritating to human skin. If you brush up against them, expect an intense burning sensation (and maybe welts), thanks to toxins like formic acid, which you might be familiar with if you’ve ever met a fire ant. Why are we suggesting you eat this for dinner? As Michael Ruhlman says, “There’s a visceral pleasure to eating dangerous or forbidden food.” Plus they taste good, and are nutritional powerhouses -- so you should get to know your new favorite superfood.
More: If you have a few bunches of stinging nettles, you’re well on your way to 5 dinners.
Like chickweed, you can (responsibly) forage for stinging nettles, but don’t harvest nettles (or anything, really) near a well-traveled road (unless you’re going for an essence of exhaust fumes). You’re looking for the young nettles, ideally just the top bits of plants (2, below) that are less than knee high. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall offers further specifics, and suggests that you pick only the top 4 to 6 leaves, and he mentions not to eat stinging nettles once they begin to form flowers, because by then they’ve become “coarse and hoary.” If you miss out on perfect specimens right now, not to worry -- the plants will produce fresh growth again later in the summer. Or visit your neighborhood farmers market and pick up a bag: We’ll never tell.
To prep your nettles, Hank Shaw recommends blanching in water that tastes like the sea, shocking them in an ice bath, then draining and drying them. (Don’t forget the gloves when you’re handling them -- but once cooked, their stinging powers are wiped out.) From there, you can freeze some for a taste of spring later on, or you can use them for dinner tonight:
It seems like a vegetable cliché, but you can use your cooked nettles anywhere you'd use spinach. Try stinging nettles in pasta, either as a filling, or right in the dough. Use stinging nettles in spanakopita or a soup. Go for asparagus benedict on quinoa nettle cakes or use them to top a pizza like Chad Robertson does in Tartine Bread.
Sauces and Sides
Served stinging nettles creamed, in a gratin, or simply sautéed with butter, salt, and pepper. You already know you can turn almost any greens into pesto, and stinging nettles are no exception. Try stinging nettle salsa verde, or for extra credit, uses stinging nettles to make vegetarian-friendly rennet, and then make your own cheese.
Tell us: How do you like to use stinging nettles?
Photos by James Ransom