When I first learned that stinging nettles were not only edible, but delicious and extra-nutritious, I was surprised.
You see, like any sane person, I'd 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 my foraging master friends, Hank Shaw over at Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, and Kari at the Erratic Crafter were both so jazzed to hear about the plethora of nettles on the Delta that I was quickly convinced to run out and pick some.
I also did a little research (if Google can be called "research") on the nutritional value of nettles. I found differing accounts of their value (thanks, Internet), anywhere from 20-40% protein, with high levels of vitamins A, B, and C, and possibly some minerals. I'm no nutritionist, but I do know that greens are good for ya.
Pick nettles when they are young, and take the top 4-6" of the plant. Nettles require some special equipment for picking - namely, a glove or two, snips, and a bag. Their stinging hairs contain formic acid, which can cause itching, swelling and burning, and I'm fairly certain that it isn't an allergic reaction, it's actual damage, so don't mess with them.
Preparing nettles is easy; here is what Hank taught me:
Get a big ol' pot of saltwater boiling, and a big ol' bowl of icewater. 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 the icewater, to preserve their color. Next, roll them up into tea towels, wring 'em out, vacuum seal and freeze.
Nettles are 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.
Nettles, Urtica dioica (stinging nettle), Urtica urens (common or dwarf nettle)
A small to medium (10"- 8 ft.) plant growing in single, straight stalks. Dwarf nettle resembles short mint, with small, deep green leaves and square stalks. It does not, however, taste like mint, especially right off the plant! Stinging nettles grow tall, often in ditches or near water sources in California, and their leaves and stalks are lighter green and very hairy.
Nettles can replace spinach in any recipe. They are much milder than spinach, but their nutritional qualities, color and texture are similar. I use them in egg dishes.
Scrambled eggs and nettles:
1/4 Cup milk
1/4 Cup prepared nettles
1/2 Tb. butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Scramble the eggs with the milk and nettles.
Heat a skillet on medium, add butter, and when just melted and sizzling, pour in the eggs. Turn down to low, and watch. When the eggs bubble for a bit, chop and turn them in the pan. When they reach the consistency you like, turn off the heat and put 'em on a plate. Obviously, this recipe is for folks who don't have a great deal of experience in the kitchen.