The stinging nettle plant resembles mint, with fuzzy, jagged leaves paired opposite a central stalk. But the plant's hollow spines contain a decidedly un-mintlike cocktail of irritants, including formic acid, the active ingredient in red ant venom. It figures then, that the plant's scientific name, Urtica dioica, is related to the Latin urticaria, which means "skin rash."
Nettles are among the first of the season's wild plants that can be gathered in quantities large enough for both eating and storage. The wet and warming months of spring are the best time to gather nettles. While the plants will keep growing all summer, it's the supple young shoots—between six and 16 inches tall—that are best to gather and eat.
Nettles contain many nutrients, including calcium, iron, manganese, potassium and protein. They have traditionally been used in supplements by people who don't get enough meat or fruit, and to treat a wide range of ailments, including prostate and kidney problems, arthritis and allergies.
You need gloves and scissors to harvest nettles, unless you want to get stung. Turns out some people do want to get stung.
"The walls of the hairs are composed of silica, i.e., natural glass, and contact breaks the fragile tip of the hair, which is sharp enough to push into the skin, while at the same time the venom, stored under pressure in the expanded base, travels up the hair and is injected into the skin through the broken tip," reports the website www.mordor.u-net.com/smbd/nettles.html in a detailed discussion of a practice called sado-botany.
I learned about sado-botany while searching for nettle information online, evidently with the "safe search" filter on my web browser turned off. The first web page I found, quoted above, offers many thoughtful tips on nettle-enhanced kinky sex, including a sensible warning to avoid use of the New Zealand nettle, which is strong enough to kill a horse.
Those more interested in wholesome nourishment should know that nettle barbs are disarmed when the greens are cooked. They have a wild flavor, earthy like spinach, rich like asparagus.
My nettle stash is up a steep, moist, west-facing drainage near town. The drainage has a little creek that runs next to a trail that, in spring, is often layered with a slippery layer of mud. I call this place "Dog Poop Gulch," or something like that—I can't divulge its real name because if I did, my girlfriend would punish me. (And clearly, nettles and punishment can be a potent combination.)
If you can find your own patch of nettles, you should cash in. Don't worry about decimating the nettle population, because it is almost impossible to do. Nettles aren't native to the United States, so feel free to munch on as many of these invasive weeds as you like. And if you gather more than you can eat for dinner, consider preserving some, via dehydration or blanching and freezing. Just remember, in places like Dog Poop Gulch, you don't want to harvest alongside the trail, for obvious reasons.
Dogs, foragers and sado-botanists aren't the only critters who enjoy the occasional frolic in the nettle patch. There is also my friend Bob Pyle, world-renowned lepidopterist and acclaimed writer and naturalist. Bob, who self-identifies as a non-sado-botanist, told me he knows of at least three butterflies whose caterpillar incarnations eat nothing but nettles. Nobody knows what these larvae ate before nettles invaded North America.
While caterpillars eat their nettles raw, I think that would be too distracting. Just a few minutes of steam wilts the stingers, and you can call it good right there. Toss them with minced garlic and soy sauce, perhaps, and serve. Nettles can make a great pesto too, in conjunction with the usual pesto constituents, minus the basil. And they can be used in any cooked spinach recipe.
Chef Jeff Miller of Papoose Creek Lodge in Montana specializes in cooking with wild foods. He gave me a great recipe for ravioli filling, which would make a fine pizza topping, too. To make it, blanch some nettles a handful at a time in boiling salted water, and then plunge them into an ice bath, a process known as "shocking" that stops the cooking immediately and fixes a bright green color. Squeeze out the water from the shocked nettles.
In a food processor, blend 1 cup blanched nettles, 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan, 4 tablespoons ricotta cheese, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1 teaspoon nutmeg and a pinch of salt.
For the ravioli dough, follow the pasta recipe of your choice. I like the one in Joy of Cooking. Roll the fresh pasta into sheets.
On one sheet, place teaspoon-sized dollops of filling in a grid pattern, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Dipping your finger in water, draw lines between the dollops and around the perimeter of the sheet, and cover with another pasta sheet. Starting at one end, press firmly along the wet lines, squeezing out the air and bonding the pasta around each ravioli. Cut apart the raviolis with a butter knife or pasta cutter.
To cook, drop them in a big pot of boiling, salted, olive-oiled water for about 2 minutes, or until they float. Set aside 1/2 cup of pasta water to use in the sauce.
Strain the ravioli, toss them in olive oil and minced raw garlic, and set aside. Make the sauce as follows:
Pan-toast 1/2 cup of crushed walnuts on medium heat. When they're hot and golden, add half a stick of butter. When the butter starts to brown—but before it burns—add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Lower heat and toss the ravioli in this sauce with a splash of pasta water. It should sizzle a little. Don't overload the pan with ravioli. Serve sprinkled with toasted walnuts scooped from the pan.
There's no sadism in this dish, just nutritious pleasure—with no stings, and hopefully no extra caterpillar protein.
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