Nettles

The sun is up and the nettles are out.

I’ve always been fascinated by wild foods. Picking a wild berry or parsnip gives you a little taste of what our distant ancestors lives were like, the ways they looked at the world and the flavors they enjoyed.

Nettles are famous because they’re one of the very first wild plants available in spring and are available almost everywhere. (There’s not a whole lot available in winter unless you really like pine trees, which I don’t.) They’re also famous because they don’t look spiky, but if you accidentally brush up against one while walking in shorts, you will be very, very sorry.

I’ve never eaten nettles before, but when I found them in the woods while hiking with the family, decided they’d be worth trying. Why not? (Once I pointed out the nettles, my kids of course started poking them.)

The best way to harvest nettles is with salad tongs, because you don’t want to touch them. (You always bring salad tongs on your hikes, right?) Pick the tender top leaves and put them in a bag. If you’re not sure whether it’s nettles or not, just poke the plant a few times. You’ll figure it out. Once you get them home, figure out how you’re going to handle them for rinsing and chopping.

You can eat nettles raw, if you just carefully crush all of the spines before sticking it in your mouth. Take a tender top leaf carefully by the bottom. Press the sides together. Curse as you verify that, yes, this is definitely stinging nettle why are you holding it. Mash. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve probably crushed all of the ouchy bits, eat it.

It tastes a little like mint, oddly enough. (They’re not closely related, as far as I know, but they plants do have some superficial similarities.)

After washing and chopping, I opted to sauté mine in butter with onions and asparagus–asparagus isn’t actually up yet in my area, but it is an early spring crop and so felt like an appropriate complement.

Cooked in this way, I couldn’t really taste the nettles; whatever flavor they may have had was overwhelmed by the onions. Other greens I’ve had, such as kale and collards, can be quite strong (in my opinion, unpleasantly so), so I don’t mind the mildness. People claim nettles have all sorts of health benefits, but I have my doubts. Perhaps our ancestors, at the end of a long winter eating only what they could store, were in genuine need of fresh greens by the time nettles arrived, just as sailors at sea were in genuine need of oranges and lemons–but it is unusual for someone who shops at a modern grocery store to be deficient in anything but sunlight.

I conclude that if you’re looking for greens and you’re okay with picking something that will try to bite you back, nettles aren’t a bad choice. Next time, I’ll try making tea.