Tromping through the woods as a kid, I had my fair share of nasty run-ins with the leafy vengeance of the Stinging Nettle. If your bare skin runs into it, it will cause an obnoxious itchy sort of pain (and in my case, gives me little blisters that fade away after a bit). As unpleasant as it is, though, I consider it the ‘wasabi’ of the pain-inducing-plant world, because the discomfort usually subsides in less than 30 minutes…unlike the everlasting misery of poison oak.
As per Wikipedia‘s illustrious description, the mechanism for this action is:
“The plant has many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on its leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles that inject histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation when contacted by humans and other animals.”
Fun times, right? Now you’re totally thinking, “how awesome, I want to eat tiny hypodermic needles that inject histamines into me!” Well, the good news is that if you rinse them thoroughly and cook them (only for about 5 minutes), those chemicals go away and you’re left with a tasty vegetable that causes no pain. It has flavor somewhat like a herb-y, mellow, very fresh spinach and a nearly melty texture. I think it is best described as the “sophisticated cousin of spinach”.
The optimal time for picking nettles is early spring when they’re still fairly small, because they’ll be the most tender and not gritty. My family is located in the Pacific Northwest, spring tends to start a little earlier here thanks to the temperate, moist climate. It’s only the end of January but there are already flowers blooming and frogs croaking…and nettles that are about 10″ tall. Perfect! My dad and I grabbed some gloves and a bag and went for a walk, picking the nettle tips. I have to give him credit for teaching me how to pick them without causing that annoying discomfort (use gloves, and apparently the underside of your hand is less susceptible to the stinging parts).
We brought them back and cooked them, then ate them with dinner. They were fabulous! I was thinking they might make a delightfully mellow pesto (cooked first of course) and could see how folks in Europe could like making a creamy sort of soup of it. It could also make a spanakopita type thing, who knows! Too bad their best season is so fleeting and there certainly aren’t any near me in the bay area. Those of you on the east coast are lucky– You probably have a month or so to wait for that snow to go away, then you can go out and harvest some yourselves! Plenty of time to plan some good recipes.