Last weekend on Orcas Island, just as I was settling in by the wood stove after a long hike for what I thought was cocktail hour, my brother suggested we all go out to gather some nettles for dinner. Couldn’t pass that up so it was back on with my boots, grabbed my camera and a double layer of latex gloves — my sister-in-law’s brilliant new discovery that makes nettle picking much easier and safer than relying on gardening gloves. I could pinch off the tender nettle tops between snapping photos without ever removing my gloves.
Anyone who’s spent much time in the woods in the Northwest knows they aren’t called Stinging Nettles for nothing. Brush up against one with bare skin — which by the way, is hard to avoid when you’re walking along an abandoned road in shorts. You’ll feel it for anywhere from a couple of hours to several days. Where you find nettles, you can be sure the soil is very fertile and has been disturbed. The plants contain loads of nitrogen and are an excellent compost activator. They’re also very good for you to eat — rich in iron, calcium, protein, vitamins A & C and minerals. Simmered in vinegar, the leaves make an excellent hair tonic. You’ll find nettles listed as an ingredient in several natural shampoos.
Because of an early spring, the nettles we found were well on their way but there’s still time to eat the tender tops before the plants begin to flower and become bitter and tough. First step is to soak them in a big bowl of cold water. Using tongs, lightly submerge the leaves and leave for half an hour or so to clean and remove any little bugs brave enough to have made this prickly plant their place to hang out. The leaves can then be rinsed and put in a salad spinner to dry. Keep those tongs in your hand at all times and don’t pick up your cocktail until the nettles are safely in the steamer. Most recipes say to steam for a minute or so but I prefer at least 5 minutes. Cooking will remove the sting so you can do a taste test. I can feel a fuzzy sensation in my throat when they’re not completely cooked so I like to be on the safe side. Steamed, then topped with butter, salt & pepper is the most simple way to go and is perfectly delicious. The best description I can think of for the flavor is a cross between spinach and asparagus but there’s no way to do justice to how healthy I feel eating them.
Don’t forget to save the liquid from the steamer. It makes an excellent, though admittedly intense tea or tonic. It could also be saved for soup stock or hair rinse as I mentioned above.
I made pesto from the large ziplock bagful of nettles I brought home from my weekend on Orcas. If you don’t have access to the wild ones yourself, you can buy them at the farmers market from the Found and Foraged folks, who by the way, have opened a new restaurant on Eastlake appropriately called Nettletown.
I used Langdon Cook, our favorite forager’s nettle pesto recipe as my inspiration. It turns out, nettle pesto is not only flavorful but mild enough for kids to enjoy. In some ways I like it as well as pesto made with basil. The next time I’ll make a bigger batch and freeze some in an ice cube tray to use later.
2 cups stinging nettle leaves, steamed for 5 minutes (I used a large ziplock full and didn’t measure but this seems about right)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted — pine nuts are traditional but more expensive, hazelnuts are a good local choice
3-4 large garlic cloves
Juice of one lemon
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Place all ingredients except olive oil in food processor and pulse several times to finely chop. Add olive oil in a slow, steady stream until completely incorporated.
Serve on your favorite pasta, crackers or bread or drop a spoonful on a steamy bowl of bean soup.