Foraging for wild food can turn an ordinary hike into an adventure. While visiting family on Orcas Island, I had the perfect opportunity to forage for nettles. They are free, local, delicious and the new shoots are coming up everywhere. I put on heavy work gloves and brought along a grocery bag. In no time, I had plenty for dinner.
The easiest way to pick nettles is to hold the main stalk with one hand and snap off the newest shoots at the very top of the plant with the other. Always wear gloves, preferably with no holes (as I found out). The tender shoots have a purplish blush. It is okay to get a little stem along with the leaves.
Once nettles are cooked, they lose their sting but maintain loads of vitamins, minerals and protein. When fresh, they live up to their superfood reputation. You can’t help but feel energized after eating them. Many people just steam or saute with some garlic or onions. You can use them in practically any recipe that calls for spinach as long as they are cooked. I tried this creamed spinach recipe from The Union Square Cafe Cookbook and the results were outstanding.
1/3 of a large grocery bag of Nettle shoots
4 T butter
2 T flour
1 cup whole milk
4 T heavy cream
1/4 t freshly grated nutmeg
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper
Place the nettles in a large bowl and cover with cold water. I used tongs to move the nettles since they can still sting you until they are cooked. Rinse and drain to remove any loose dirt or bugs.
To make the cream sauce, melt 2 T of butter in a saucepan over low heat. Stir in the flour with a wooden spoon until it is completely incorporated into the butter. Stir gently and cook for 5 minutes. Don’t let the flour brown. Remove from the heat and whisk in the milk. Return to a boil, whisking constantly, and cook 2 to 3 minutes longer. The sauce will begin to thicken. Remove from the burner, cover and set aside while you cook the nettles.
In a large skillet, melt 1T butter. Using your tongs, cook the nettles, starting with a lid on the skillet to steam them. Once they have cooked down, remove the lid and continue to cook until the water is gone and they are completely wilted. Better to overcook than undercook. Place in a food processor and pulse to make a coarse puree. (I found it easier to cook the nettles in 2 batches but this may not be necessary if you have a very large skillet).
Add the pureed nettles to the cream sauce. Bring to a simmer and stir in the heavy cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg and another dollop of butter. Be prepared to tame your wildness with a comforting bowl of this seasonal green goodness.