Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ever eat a stinging nettle?

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Last week I took two trips down to the edges of folks' ditches to cut Urtica dioica (or maybe U. urens, I'm not sure) for a friend, and to try some, myself.

I've never handled stinging nettle on purpose, before - when you grow up next to a plant everybody calls "electric grass", you tend to stay away - but the past few years, I've become more and more interested in free foods out there on the edges. Weeds, most folks call 'em. In fact, last year, when I found a GIGANTIC patch in a friend's corn field, I asked if I could pick some. He looked at me sideways, and said, "yeah, sure. I only sprayed yesterday, so they shouldn't be browning, yet. Go ahead." Okay, so I didn't pick those last year. I waited, knowing they'd be back.
And in the meantime, I read up on them, and talked to my foraging guru, Hobbled Hank Shaw over at Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, and to another fellow forager-in-arms, Kari over at the Erratic Crafter. Both were very excited to hear about my nettle riches, with Hank promising to show me how to process them, and Kari promising to come out and pick with me. Neither disappointed.

What I found in my readings is that nettles are a super-food. I've read differing accounts (thanks, Internet) of their value, anywhere from 20-40% protein, with high levels of vitamins A, B, and C, and possibly some minerals (iron, I've been told). I'm no nutritionist, but I do know that greens are good for ya. I found a good selection of recipe ideas, from nettles as a side-dish to nettle beer (given to me with the caveat that the Irish can make beer out of "concrete and shoe leather if needs must!").

Last Wednesday, the family hit the field, on a slow trip down the Delta, looking for stuff growin' on the side of the road. We found, mostly, fields full of wild radishes (not as good as it sounds). One field was loaded with amaranth, and I'm going to try to get out there before the ploughing and spraying commence. We also found a couple of smallish patches of nettles, but didn't stop, because I knew where we'd find more.

And we did. The nettles are about 10"-15" high in the Delta fields right now, perfect for picking. I grabbed gloves and the snips, but quickly realized that I couldn't snip with a glove. Here's a picture of my eventual technique:

I did get stung a few times by what I've learned is formic acid, the same stuff that some ants use when biting you. It burns and welts a bit, but if you only get touched a couple of times, it's no big deal.

I filled that bag full of nettles, with what processed out as about a pound. You only cut the top 4-6" or so of the plant, I've been told, so filling took a little bit of time. But it was a nice, gray day on the Delta, so I didn't mind.

After filling the bag, I hit the road for Hank's place, so he could teach me how to properly prepare these. I love Hank and Holly's place, it's cozy while still with a touch of elegance, and they are always welcoming and comfortable people to be around. We talked for a bit, poor Hank with his gigantic, caste foot propped up much of the time. Of course, we talked food and hunting, but we also talked politics, as they are both journalists, and I work in... well, I'm a lobbyist. Occasionally.

When we commenced to preparing, here is what Hank taught me:

Get a big ol' pot of saltwater boiling. Throw in (with the tongs! Use the tongs!) a bunch of the nettles, and let them cook up for about 20-30 seconds. Pull them out, and plunge them into icewater, to preserve their color. Next, roll them up into tea towels, wring 'em out, and vacuum seal and freeze.

The following Saturday, I had a great time with my good friend Kari and my daughter, out picking nettles. Kari got a bagful, and I picked three bags' full, because halfway through my picking, I got a phone call from Hank that he wanted more! He was pretty jazzed about what he'd found in a book on pasta - I won't spoil any surprises you'll find better-written on his blog, just keep checking in. Kari and I had hoped to also pick wild rose hips, but the previous freeze had gotten the better of them, and they were all black and mushy. No luck.

Back home, with my pile of nettles processed, my wife "suggested" I eat one first, so she could observe my behavior for the next 48 hours. That was seven days ago, and apart from a tiny nettle growing out of my right ear, nothing strange seems to have happened.

My sister-in-law cooked up some nettles in an omelette, and declared it the best omelette she'd ever eaten. Of course, she is a weight-lifter, and had just gotten out of practice, so I'd be willing to be she could have praised that concrete-and-shoe leather beer recipe I'd been given earlier.

I'm very excited at the prospect of nettles, a great green growing generously at your local marginal land, I'm sure. So, next time you are walking the dog by that patch of nettles at the edge of the park, take note, and come back when the little ones are just coming up. You can get yourself a real treat, and get to freak out your friends and family at the same time.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Great post - i found you from Hanks blog and have added you to my blog roll.


lizarooski said...

Urtica urens.

Josh said...

Suburban Bushwacker, thanks!

lizarooski, I've since learned this. Around here, U. urens is a new plant - all I'd ever known was U. dioica.

Do you eat them?

Bpaul said...

I went nettle crazy last spring and can't wait to get back on it. I crave them. I couldn't seem to pick enough. I'm going through the powdered nettle much slower than the parboiled/frozen stuff. I like it best fresh, of course, but a whole lot of the flavor is saved when they're blanched and vacuum packed, as you mentioned.

Not any new info for you there but it was my run last spring, just for reference.


Josh said...

Bpaul, thanks for stopping by! I checked out your site, and it looks fun.

I may try drying some sometime - that is a whole new realm for me.

I think you'd love to see what Hank Shaw has done with nettles over at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, including nettle pesto:

Bpaul said...

I do believe it was through his site that I found yours, actually. I'll search up nettles there.


Anonymous said...

And go back and harvest the Amaranth! Talk about super food! I just wrote about that: