Thursday, March 6, 2014

Nettles: Taking the sting out of nature's wild greens

This juvenile nettle is a young shoot great for cooking.
Avoid adult plants that have gone to flower or are producing seed.
After Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow and the inevitable extension of winter in Oregon takes place, daffodils and crocus begin to push up out of the ground, showing budding signs of optimism that can mean only one thing. Nettles are out! Okay, so it also means that spring is near. The late winter downpours and warmer climate encourage lots of green growth, even the kind of plants with annoying syringe-like trichomes filled with histamine and other irritating compounds that can cause visible welts on the skin and painful stings.

Mostly known for their negative attributes, nettles are under-rated. Their use in developing textile fiber is commonly overlooked, regardless of the fact that they don't require the same pesticides as cotton. They have a long history of being used in herbal medicine to treat everything from arthritis and dandruff to benign prostatic hyperplasia and promotion of lactation. The best part of the good news is that if you don't have any of those issues, cooked nettles resemble flavors of sweet spinach when prepared properly and can be potentially very tasty.

Microphotography of nettle trichome by Charles Krebs
Wild-harvesting nettles takes a little care to conduct without stinging yourself. You'll need a good pair of solid constructed gloves made with something like thick latex rubber or leather, a pair of long scissors and a container they will not able to sting through like a tupperware or small bucket. Hold it below the plant and trim the leaves directly into the container. You'll find them growing just about anywhere, but near a body of water is a good place to start. Early spring is the best time to pick them as the leaves are very tender and full of flavor. Once the plants get taller the leaves become less palatable, tough and even gritty. Keeping them in a tupperware container will help keep them fresh for when you are ready to cook with them.

When you're ready to bring the nettles into the kitchen, put some olive oil or butter along with enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. The steam will melt the trichomes and dissolve the irritants from the plant's natural defenses. You can then use them in just about any dish you would normally add sauteed greens. Other culinary uses for the plant include tea, soup, pesto and even flavoring beer. Nettles are high in calcium, vitamin A, C, iron, manganese and potassium much like spinach and other leafy greens. Happy harvesting, rain or shine.

This article was published in the 3/13/14 issue of the Corvallis Advocate:

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