THE COMMON NETTLE
WORDS BY MAIA SMITH | PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
The common nettle is continued proof that the more delicious a food, the more carefully it tries to avoid being food.
Animals stand and fight, or run away; those that can’t are often toxic. Berries hide behind thorns, fruit high on trees and shellfish within their shells. Wild greens are almost always bitter, requiring several changes of boiling water to leach the poison away even when they are young and tender.
Nettles, well, they sting. Like jellyfish, they are terrifying because most of us don’t see the invisible bees we’ve blundered into. Imagine someone leaping and slapping at nothing at all. But once you’ve gotten past the sting and into the kitchen, you’re in for a taste treat. A 10-minute blanch in boiling water will deactivate the toxic hairs; add some chopped onion and leftover cooked rice or potato, whiz by batches in the blender, salt to taste with bouillon. You will not believe any vegetable could be so delicious.
I tried nettles for the first time last December, for want of any better foraging, and immediately came back to pick and blanch and freeze all I could find. There are plenty of nettle recipes out there, but honestly the soup is so good I never bothered to try anything else. It’s thick and creamy and peacock green, with such a strong cut-grass smell it’s almost meaty. Served hot with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt it’s comfort food; or served cold with crostini, just right for a sophisticated summer lunch.
Nettles have a long history of use both as medicine and food. Boiling water actually destroys their defenses, so you don’t have to throw away the nutrients that leach into the cooking water. The broth (“tea”) is nettly and savory with more calcium than milk. Nettles are also high in manganese, iron and protein; and they’re so bright green that they must have magnesium as well as health doses of antioxidants such as vitamins A and K. They also have phosphorus, sulfur and potassium. Studies done in Germany show that nettles are an effective medicine for arthritis pain, and some bodybuilders swear by the roots. And if you really don’t like the flavor, nettle tea makes a nice toning rinse for your hair.
A few caveats, though: Once nettles bloom, their calcium oxalate forms crystals (“cystoliths”), which make the soup slightly gritty and can irritate your bladder. That same chemical is present in taro and rhubarb leaf, and it can exacerbate gout in sensitive people. And nettle stems are so fibrous that Bronze Age Europeans used to make fabric out of them! You may notice the long threads making a snarl around the blades of your blender, especially if you love nettles enough to eat them late in the season when they’re tough.
You don’t even have to pick the nettles to benefit from them. Permaculture people refer to them as nutrient pumps, because they pull minerals from deep in the ground and concentrate them in their leaves. That and their protein means they enrich the soil if plowed under or composted; animals like pigs and goats and chickens love to eat nettles. Just beware if you’re planning on growing anything else in that patch! Nettles can be invasive and a literal pain to get rid of. Cutting them back may actually make them grow more densely; those long nutrient-pump roots can survive several crew cuts. Nettles are like raspberries: Thank your stars when you find a patch, and thank your stars that none grow in your yard.
But if they do grow in your yard, take it as a compliment. Unlike most plant sources of protein, nettles are not legumes. They can’t capture nitrogen from the air. Instead, they make their protein out of nitrogen from the soil. So they need a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus. This means lots of organic matter; and they also like well-drained soil and at least partial sun. They’re often described as a roadside weed, but I’ve only seen them in a few places around Boston. If someone has nettles on their property (on the compost pile, say) they’ll probably be thrilled to give you more than you want. Ask around.
To find my nettle patch: Get on the Minuteman Bikeway in Bedford and go about 1½ miles toward Cambridge. It’s the only direction you can go. You’ll cross a big road and a small bridge over a marsh. Just past that bridge you’ll see dunes of dense green growth on either side of the path, and you may be able to smell the nearby compost depot or hear beeping yellow machines. Nettle plants look vaguely like mint, though they’re not: long coarse stems, toothed leaves and you can see the haze of stinging hairs if you look closely. Check against a picture (or your skin…ouch) to be sure they’re really nettles, then strip the leaves from the stems and stuff the leaves into gallon-size Ziploc bags. Nettles can sting right through thin clothing, so wear gloves and be careful.
Back home, stuff them into a pot of boiling water. The leaves cook down about four to one; not as much as spinach, but still a lot. Once the leaves begin to shrink and wilt, the stings are deactivated. That’s the time to go through and pick out the twigs and stems and pine needles you couldn’t help picking up. Proceed as above for soup, or make pesto or ravioli—even straight-up nettle spaghetti if you have a pasta machine. Honestly, there’s no lack of nettle recipes out there. Or nettles. So get cooking!
Just watch where you sit.
Maia Smith grew up in Concord, where she made her own maple syrup, picked roadside apples and quince, and had her own garden starting at the age of 5. Her work has been featured in the Martha's Vineyard Times and Gazette and can easily be found online. Maia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.