You know those old jokes that start, “First, go out and steal a chicken…”? Well, to eat nettles you have to go out and forage them. They like partially shaded to sunny places, like deserted lots and old gardens. Going out into places like that will make an urban forager out of you.
You might get some funny looks as you stoop over a patch of weeds that everyone else avoids if they can. But forage on, you’ll be taking home a harvest of free food and medicine.
But nettles sting, you might say. Why on earth eat them, even if they’re edible?
Well, nettles are delicious. They’re free food. They’re so full of valuable iron and protein that it’s a pity to let their season go by without eating some a few times. And they have a certain mysterious beauty, if you look for it.
It can’t be denied, nettles sting. But only when they’re raw. I’ve been gathering nettles so long that the sting doesn’t bother me much anymore, I just go bare-handed. I almost welcome the inevitable stings; they make my hands feel tingly and alive for a long time afterward. Tradition says that you can relieve arthritis by whipping inflamed joints with nettles…I don’t know. It sounds possible, but I haven’t tried it, myself.
The trick in harvesting nettles is to cut their stems with scissors. Then, still holding on to the stems with the scissors, place them head-down in a bag. It helps to wear long sleeves and gloves. No matter what, you’re going to get stung a few times. Look for dock leaves or mallow leaves in the area – crush one or two between your palms and roll the juicy leaf over the sting. That helps almost immediately.
Nettles that have gone to seed may be eaten when the seeds are still small, light-green and tender, as in the first photograph. But fully-formed, brownish seeds and tough old leaves may irritate the kidneys. Below is a photo of nettles with mature seeds. The good thing about mature seeds is that you can scatter them over dirt and they will surely sprout next spring. I encourage nettles to grow in some of my window boxes. That way I know I’ll be harvesting greens that haven’t been subjected to the attentions of neighborhood dogs and cats.
In the kitchen, I rinse the leaves to free them of dirt, then dry them in kitchen towels. I hang most of them up to dry for future cooking, but some I cook into soup, a risotto, or an omelet, right away. Nettles taste nothing like spinach, to which they’re often compared. More like mild seaweed, the taste becoming stronger when dried.
The iron in nettles is easily absorbed, making it an excellent herbal tea for anyone with anemia, especially pregnant women. Here’s how to do it:
- Boil 3 cups of water.
- Add 3 teaspoons dried, or 6 teaspoons fresh nettles; stir and cover.
- Steep the nettles 4 hours, and overnight is even better.
- Strain the tired herb out before drinking; sweeten if you like.
- Children may drink 1/2 cup three times a day. Adults may drink a full cup three times daily.
To dry for later, hang the nettles by their stems in loose bunches. Find a dry, shady place to hang them up. Below you see my improvised arrangement: an old tension pole suspended between two windows in my laundry room. Hang the nettles until the leaves are crisp and the stems dry all through. Store them in a closed container, preferably glass, away from light.
Chopped fresh nettles have a particular affinity with rice. They also complement potatoes and other vegetables, and eggs. Try hard-boiled eggs stuffed with nettles fried with onions and seasonings, then mashed with the yolks. Dried nettles, I mostly chuck into soups. Chicken and fish soups gain depth of flavor, and even more nutrition, with a small handful of nettles added to it. Whenever someone’s sick in the house, I make them soup with nettles in it, and I do believe that it helps them get better sooner.