I have something to confess.
I’ve had a secret crush on wild and foraged produce for as long as I can remember, going all the way back to when I read My Side of the Mountain as a kid. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma only rekindled my slow burning love as an adult, so much so that I took one of Steve Brill‘s foraging tours through Inwood Hill Park a few years ago. It’s an entirely romanticized infatuation, but there’s something about uncultivated edible plants that just gets me in every time.
In my ongoing hunt to find new sources of locally grown produce that don’t involve going to the grocery store, I discovered that a teeny-tiny restaurant near us started selling market boxes, similar to what I’d heard other restaurants were doing to stay afloat. While I had never actually eaten there (sadly, it had been on my to-do list for far too long), I decided to give the market box a try.
I was so glad that I did, because I was awarded with a beautiful bouquet of spring nettles, amongst several other yummy things. And I had no idea what to do with them. Like so many crushes, mine had never really materialized into a substantial relationship with edible wild plants.
“Just treat it like spinach,” the woman told me. I hesitantly responded like that made perfect sense. But don’t they sting, I thought?
So of course I googled how to cook nettles as soon as I got home. I included links to the resources I referred to at the bottom of this post, if you’re interested. I also think my research caused some undue panic in my partner – he just kept asking me, “Stinging?! What do you mean they sting?!”
It turns out the genus Urtica, the genus to which nettles belong, includes about 40 different varieties. While it sounds like not all of them sting, many do, given the formic acid hidden in the tiny hairs that cover the plants. Luckily, I actually had some latex gloves in the apartment. The stinging isn’t all that bad (yes, I had to experience it for myself). It reminded me of the pins and needles you feel after your foot falls asleep – not painful, really, just uncomfortable and not something you want to have to deal with while cooking. Here’s how I prepped my nettles:
Step 1: Wash
Like most produce, it’s important to give your nettles a quick wash before prepping them for cooking. This will remove any soil or grit and other debris from them. While wearing gloves, I gave my bouquet a quick rinse under the faucet, and laid them out on a dish towel to dry.
Step 2: The Break Down
It’s still not entirely clear to me which parts of the nettle plant are best to eat. Most of what I read mentioned picking off the top 4-5 leaves and discarding the rest, but I also saw pictures of prepared nettles with stems still intact. So, I opted for some kind of middle ground – I separated the top bunches of leaves from the naked stems. Again, it’s important to wear gloves for this step as well.
Step 3: Blanch
Blanching is a step I usually try to avoid, if I can. But in this case, it’s important blanch your nettles, as this is what neutralizes the sting!
If you’re not sure how to blanch, it’s quite simple. Put a pot of water on to boil. There are no specific amounts to follow – you just need enough water to cover the amount of nettle leaves you have.
While the water is coming up to a boil, set up a large mixing bowl with cold water. Add a few ice cubes to the already cold water, as well.
Once the water is boiling, add your nettle leaves and let simmer for 2-3 minutes. They should turn an extra bright green. Just don’t leave them in the hot water for too long, as you don’t want to overcook them.
When you’re ready to take them out of the water, turn off the burner. Move the nettle leaves from the hot water immediately into the bowl with ice water. I used tongs, but a slotted spoon would work just as well. The cold water stops the cooking process abruptly.
Give them swish in the ice water, just long enough for the temperature of the leaves to come back down. Then, remove them from the water. Squeeze what moisture you can from them, then dry them off with a towel. I laid mine out to dry for a bit while I cleaned up the blanching dishes.
I also decided to taste a couple of leaves, since they were safe to eat at this point. And you know what? They did, in fact, taste a lot like spinach! Very mild, and not at all bitter (or stingy).
Step 4: Store or Continue Cooking
At this point, you can either store your blanched nettle leaves in the fridge until you’re ready to use them, or you can move right along to using them in whatever dish you have planned. I wasn’t sure right away how I wanted to use them, so I stored mine in a container for a day or two while I came up with a plan.
Ultimately, I decided to use them in a Melissa Clark recipe for Skillet Mustard Chicken with Spinach and Carrots. I didn’t have any spinach, but I did have some collard greens and the nettles. I also didn’t have any carrots either, so I tossed in some radishes and a sad little rutabaga that needed to be eaten. Like any Melissa Clark chicken recipe I’ve ever tried, it was delicious even with all of the substitutions!
The nettles were a nice addition to the mix. I almost couldn’t distinguish them from the collard greens. Because I kept the top part of my nettles intact, there was a visual and textural element that was a bit different. For lack of a better term, they were, um, a teensy bit hairy! My partner was a little thrown off by it, but I didn’t mind. It just made the dish seem a bit wild, and it’s something we’d get used to quickly if nettles became a regular part of our spring rotation.
On our next early morning walk in the park, I spotted some nettles growing. I pointed them out to my partner, who immediately gave me some affectionate side-eye, as I like to call it. “You’re not going to pick some, are you?” Not this time, my dear. But next time, I might just toss an extra pair of gloves in my pocket, just in case.