Why would anyone want to eat plants that sting? And raw nettles do sting. But nettles are a tasty, nutrient-dense food. People have been eating them since antiquity, and probably since pre-history. Their easily-metabolized iron content is so high that nettles tea is a natural remedy for anemia.
Nettles are in season now in the Middle East. I go nettle-foraging every day, roaming the neighborhood empty lots and neglected gardens with a pair of scissors and a bag to put the green goodies in. When I bring my harvest home, I rinse the leaves, shake off as much water as I can and then gently roll them in kitchen towels. Part of the nettles stay out for cooking right away. Mostly, though, I hang them up by their stems in my laundry area, where I’ve hung an old broomstick up for that purpose.
My harvesting method is to snip the stems off and not open the scissors until I’ve deposited the plant, head-down, into my bag.
My legs are protected with a long denim skirt and my arms, with a long-sleeved blouse. All the same, the dedicated forager must resign herself to getting stung at least a few times, even if she wears gloves. A sensible precaution in the field is to take note of where mallows or dock grow, usually close to the nettles.
Gather a few leaves; crush them between your palms and apply the crushed mass to the inevitable sting. At home, kitchen gloves provide protection while rinsing and sorting the fresh nettles.
I’ve been collecting nettles for so many years, I don’t even wear gloves anymore. The sting is oddly welcome. There may be something to the old theory that nettles sting relieves arthritic pain; certainly it encourages blood circulation.
Nettles should not be picked after they’ve fruited. Their green seeds are fine to eat, but the mature fruit, and older leaves, contain a substance that can irritate the kidneys. The photo below nettles gone to flower. Its stringy, leggy, stringy condition indicates old plant.
Nettles are delicious cooked these ways:
1. Nettle Soup: Make one liter – 4 cups – vegetable stock. Add add 500 grams – 1 lb. of chopped fresh nettles 15 minutes before serving. Blend. For a hearty soup, make sure your stock has a chopped potato in it. For a creamy dairy soup, add 1 cup of sour cream to blended soup, stir well and heat the soup once again, without boiling, before serving. A more detailed nettles soup recipe here.
2. Omelet for Two: Saute a small onion in olive oil. Add a small, chopped tomato. Add herbs to taste: za’atar is very good and so is basil. Stir in 1/4 cup chopped fresh nettles; cook over medium heat until they wilt. Beat 2 eggs and add to the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Flip the omelet over to cook top side; or finish cooking it the way you’re used to.
3. Nettles in rice. Serves 4. Rinse and drain 1 cup rice. Fry in olive oil until heated through and coated with oil – about 3 minutes. Add 2 cloves crushed garlic. Stir in 1/2 cup chopped fresh nettles; stir again to distribute. Season with 1 tsp. salt. Add 2 cups boiling water. Cover the pot and cook over low heat until rice is cooked – 15-20 minutes for white rice, 30-40 minutes for brown rice.
A variation: cook quinoa with nettles the same way, using 1-1/2 cups water per cup of quinoa.
4. Puff pastry pie filled with nettles and potatoes: Make a filling of diced potatoes, onions, a touch of garlic and plenty of nettles, all fried in olive oil until potatoes are cooked through but still firm. Season. Roll puff pastry out into a rectangle and cut it in half. Place pastry in a greased or parchment-lined pie dish. Spread potato/nettles mix on top. Place second half of puff pastry on top and crimp edges together.
Brush top of pastry with a beaten egg. With a sharp knife, cut a few slits in the crust. Bake at 350 F – 180 C for 45 minutes or until the crust is a rich golden brown and a smell of done-ness fills the house. May be made dairy by mixing a container of sour cream and an egg into the vegetables before spreading on bottom crust (check for seasoning again).
Replace spinach with nettles in any recipe. The taste is not like spinach; nettles have their own, characteristic flavor. It’s earthy and herby and rather dark.
5. A medicinal nettles tea: 1 teaspoon dried, or 2 teaspoons fresh nettles per cup of boiling water. Cover and allow to steep 4 hours – overnight is better. Strain and drink. May be sweetened to taste. Dose for children: 1/2 cup three times daily. Dose for adults: 1 cup three times daily. Because of its easily-metabolized iron content, nettles tea is especially recommended for tired adolescent girls, pregnant women, and women after birth.
More on foraging and eating wild things: