In the spring just as the tree buds are becoming leaves, it’s time to start looking for nettles to harvest. If you find a patch, it will likely be abundant. Nettles, Urtica dioica, are wonderfully good for you, high in nutrients and with many health benefits. (I won’t list them here; a quick internet search using the keywords “forage nettles” will bring up enough articles and videos for hours of happy research.)
Known as stinging nettle for good reason, the plant has a defense system of tiny hollow hairs that act like needles to inject formic acid, histamine and other chemicals into the skin of any creature that might try to eat them. I personally don’t mind the sensation. It tingles for a day or two, but the lore about urtication (deliberate stinging of the skin with nettles to combat pain) encourages me to appreciate it.
However, we do have a harvesting system to avoid stings. One of us holds the bag or basket open below the nettle plant. The other snips off the tender top and lets it fall in. Simple. Almost foolproof. If you are alone, you can gently use the scissors as tongs to transfer the cutting to the bag. Another method is to use gloves, as long as they are leather. Nettles can sting through the woven fabric of most garden gloves.
Back at home with the harvest, it’s time to wash the nettles. A spaghetti server is a great tool for this. Swish the nettles in a sink of cool water, then transfer them into a pot. With two inches of filtered water in the pot, bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook for only a minute so so, then drain. Reserve all the water – this is nettle broth and you do not want to let all those important nutrients go to waste.
Use cooked nettles any way you would use other cooked greens such as spinach. A simple way to enjoy them is to squeeze out the broth, chop while still hot and serve with some butter and salt and pepper.
One of our favourite side dishes is cauliflower-nettle puree, which I think I will rename Emerald Cauliflower because of the beautiful colour. Trim, separate and steam a small head of cauliflower with four cloves of garlic. Meanwhile, in the food processor, grind black pepper to taste (lots) and some sea salt, the add a tablespoon of butter. Cook four to six cups of nettles as previously described. Drain the nettles well and purée in the processor for three or four pulses. When the cauliflower is soft, after 15 to 20 minutes, add it to the processor and continue to purée until the texture is similar to mashed potatoes. Serve hot.