When I informed an editor I was writing about stinging nettles, he said: “Do I want to eat something called stinging nettles?”
My quick response was: Yes!
Although the plant sounds as if it could cause pain, and it can, it won’t if handled properly. Your reward for doing that will be a flavourful green you can use in myriad recipes that’s also nutritious, containing vitamins A, C and D, iron and calcium.
There is a catch, though; You have to harvest stinging nettles yourself. Providing guidance on performing this task was Alison Colwell, one of the co-ordinators of the Galiano Club Food Program, whose mission is to build community by growing, preparing, preserving and sharing food.
A stinging nettle is a Eurasian nettle that has naturalized in North America. The recently published book, The Deerholme Foraging Book: Wild Foods and Recipes From the Pacific Northwest (Touchwood Editions, $29.95), notes the plant’s jagged leaves grow in pairs on opposite sides of its stem.
“Nettles are edible all spring and summer, until they flower, but are at their best when young and tender. That’s March through April here on the coast,” Colwell said.
She said you’ll find them on roadsides, trail edges, disturbed ground, forest clearings, streams and pond edges.
Before heading out to harvest stinging nettles, Colwell advises you equip yourself with gloves, scissors or garden snippers and a basket.
“If you use scissors [as opposed to tearing] to cut the top six leaves [the best bit] off the plant, the roots remain undisturbed and the plant will continue to grow,” Colwell said.
Colwell said kitchen or gardening gloves work well for holding the plant when you snip and for transferring the leaves to your basket. You’ll need those gloves because the plant has minute hairs that can inject irritants into your skin. That’s why the plant is called a stinging nettle.
“Most recipes will call for the amount of fresh nettles, so it’s easy to tell how much you need. And once you’ve found a good patch, it’s easy [and fast] to fill your basket,” Colwell said.
As for getting rid of the sting, Colwell said heating, drying or freezing the leaves will all do the job.
For example, she said, when she’s making nesto, a twist on pesto, she will steam the nettles first before blending. In other cases, such as making soup, she simply adds them straight to the pot.
I’ve published Colwell’s recipe for nesto, and also recipes for nettle hummus and nettle gomae from Bill Jones, author of the above-mentioned The Deerholme Foraging Book.
If you still feel uneasy about harvesting your own stinging nettles and preparing them, that will change if you attend one of the events occurring on Galiano Island in early April. To learn about them, read below.
Galiano Celebrates the Stinging Nettle
This Saturday, picturesque Galiano Island will host its annual Nettlefest. Those who want to pick nettles should meet at 11 a.m. at the Galiano Island South Community Hall, 141 Sturdies Bay Rd. Bring a basket, clippers and gloves and be ready to carpool to the harvesting spot. In the hall during the day, nettle vendors will set up and volunteers will be making nettle bread and soup. The free-admission event wraps up with a nettle-rich potluck dinner in the hall at 5:30 p.m.
The following weekend, Galiano Island will host Taste the Wild — Nettle Foraging Retreat. This event, also taking place at the Community Hall, consists of three informative workshops:
• The first, April 12 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is an introduction to nettle foraging led by herbalist Dora Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will demonstrate how to harvest nettles and discover other edible greens. You’ll then return to the hall to sample her amazing “green bull” nettle drink and learn to make nettle salt.
• The second workshop, also on April 12, is all about cooking nettles and will be led by Alison Colwell. In this hands-on class, from 4 to 8 p.m., you’ll learn the basics of preparing nettles and then roll up your sleeves to make nettle-rich foods, such as soup, bread, gnocchi and tarts.
• On April 13, from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the nettle retreat wraps up with a nettle crafting workshop led by Cedana Bourne. Bourne will get you outdoors to practise your nettle-harvesting skills, and then you’ll return to the hall for some nettle tea and learn how to make it. Bourne will discuss different methods of preserving nettles, the use of nettle seeds and how to use nettles in a variety of products, such as nettle gomasio and nettle vinegar.
Each workshop costs $75. The cost to attend all three is $180. There’s an added $10 supply fee for the crafting workshop. You can register for the workshops at eventbrite.ca.
For further information about Nettlefest and the nettle retreat, visit galianofoodprogram.ca. If you’re travelling to Galiano Island for the workshops and want to spend the night, discounts are available at Driftwood Village (driftwoodvillage.com). For a list of other places to stay, visit galianoisland.com.
Alison Colwell’s Nesto
Use this inviting nesto as you would basil-flavoured pesto. Colwell is a co-ordinator for the Galiano Club Food Program.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: About 4 minutes
Makes: About 3 cups
3 cups stinging nettle leaves (no stems)
6 peeled garlic cloves
1/2 cup walnut halves
• salt and pepper, to taste
• splash of lemon juice, or to taste
3/4 to 1 cup olive oil
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Steam the stinging nettles until just softened, about four minutes, and then cool to room temperature.
Place garlic, walnuts, salt, pepper and lemon juice in a food processor and pulse until well blended. Add the nettles and blend. While the blade is turning, slowly add up to 1 cup olive oil. Mix in the parmesan cheese and the nesto is ready.
Stinging Nettle Hummus
Chickpeas are a versatile platform for the flavour of many wild foods. Greens, mushrooms and seaweed all work well in this mixture. Some greens of note are miner’s lettuce, oxeye daisy leaves and wild mustard greens.
4 cups stinging nettle tips
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 Tbsp chopped fresh garlic
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp hot sauce
• salt and pepper, to taste
Soak the stinging nettles in plenty of cold water. Rinse and drain them. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add the nettles and cook for 30 seconds or until the nettles are limp and dark green. Remove with a slotted spoon or tongs and transfer to a large bowl of cold water. When cool, drain the nettles and squeeze out all moisture. You will end up with a small ball of nettles. Coarsely chop the nettles.
In a food processor, purée the nettles and chickpeas until a coarse mixture forms. Add the garlic, lemon zest and lemon juice. Continue to purée the mixture, adding the olive oil in a slow stream until the mixture is very smooth. Add the hot sauce and season well with salt and pepper. Pulse to mix, then transfer to a serving dish, drizzle with a little more olive oil, and serve with rustic bread or pita bread.
Stinging Nettle Gomae
Gomae translates to “sesame” in Japanese and is usually a dish made with spinach. I have also had great results with lamb’s quarters, miner’s lettuce, chickweed and burdock leaves. In particular, the slightly bitter greens benefit from the infusion of sesame, soy and sweet mirin (made from sweetened sake).
8 cups stinging nettle tops
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp grapeseed oil
1 tsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp mirin
1 Tbsp white sesame seeds
Soak the stinging nettles in plenty of cold water. Rinse and drain. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add the nettles and cook for 30 seconds, or until the nettles are limp and dark green. Remove with a slotted spoon or tongs and transfer to a large bowl of cold water to shock [chill] the nettles, which stops the cooking process. Drain the nettles and squeeze out all moisture. You will end up with a softball-sized lump of nettles. Coarsely chop the nettles.
In a mixing bowl, add the soy sauce, grapeseed oil, sesame oil and mirin. Whisk until uniform, then add the nettles and sesame seeds and toss well to mix. Let sit for five minutes and serve at room temperature. This mixture will keep for several days in the refrigerator.
Eric Akis is the author of the hardcover book Everyone Can Cook Everything. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.