Saturday, April 04, 2015

Nettlesome Topic? Nettles, Of Course.

One of the first signs of spring in the Willamette Valley is the appearance of nettles, which pop up on farmers' market tables with signs labeled "Don't Touch! Ask farmer for assistance." Jim Dixon of Real Good Food is a big fan, and he links to several recipes here.

Stinging Nettles

Tiny glass-like needles, each with a bulbous base filled with chemical irritants, cover the leaves of stinging nettles. The lightest touch shatters them and unleashes a poisonous brew of neurotransmitters, histamines and formic acid, the same acid that makes bee stings and ant bites so painful. The smart thing is to avoid stinging nettles altogether.

Unless you want to eat them, that is.

Roasted nettles.

Heat neutralizes their sting, and when cooked, nettles have a robust, almost meaty flavor. The leaves are high in calcium and iron, and studies have confirmed their effectiveness as an anti-inflammatory, a use that goes back to ancient Greece.

While nettle greens can be used in any recipe that calls for spinach, one of my favorite way to eat them is an adaptation of a recipe from Faith Willinger’s Red, White, and Greens: The Italian Way with Vegetables cookbook. Called subrich (soo-brick) in the Piemontese dialect of northern Italy, these are basically little eggy fritters. If the mint has come up in my garden, I make nettle and mint fritters, but you can use the same recipe without the mint. Nettles are also good roasted, cooked with caramelized onions and za'atar, or sautéed with thinly sliced garlic and finished with cream.

Nettles with onions and za'atar.

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) grow throughout North America, but are especially abundant in the wet coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest. Anyone who’s inadvertently stumbled into a patch remembers what they look like, and it’s easy (if painful) to test a leaf to make sure it stings. Bring along an experienced forager if it’s your first time out nettle-gathering, make sure you have good gloves and don’t eat the leaves if the nettles have flowered or gone to seed. After that point, they develop bits of calcium carbonate which may cause urinary-tract irritation. You can often find nettles at the Portland Farmers Market (check with Roger and Norma at Springwater Farms) and sometimes at New Seasons Market.

More nettle recipes? Sure! Try this nettle flan, or how about a pork leg roast with nettle pesto stuffing? Oh, and this spring leek and nettle tart is to die for!


Bonnie Story said...

I love nettles. I'm trying to lay off my patch this year and let it recover from last years harvest. Cheers!

Kathleen Bauer said...

Nice to have your own supply, Bonnie! Thanks for reading…