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Food & Wine

Stinging nettles: How to vanquish a reluctant culinary star

Photo By: Courtesy of Monica Sircar
Defanged, nettles cook up into a bright-green soup.

If you have a taste for danger, try taming a defensive yet delicious green – the stinging nettle.

Stinging nettle is an edible wild plant found throughout North America and Europe. Its namesake characteristic comes from thin, hairlike tubes covering the leaves and stems, which deliver a potent sting to careless handlers.

Despite the prickly disincentive, nettles have been prized as a food across cultures for centuries. Popular among foragers who harvest them wild, nettles are often found in recently disturbed ground or along the banks of water sources. On the Peninsula, nettles grow in developed neighborhoods as well as near streams along the coast. Nettles are also available at many local farmers’ markets. For those willing to brave the plant’s apparent dangers, remarkable delicacies await.

Stinging nettles have garnered culinary praise for their nutrient density and unique flavor. The taste of nettles is mellow yet complex, at once herbaceous, earthy and slightly nutty.

Nettles are a nutritional powerhouse, boasting high concentrations of protein, iron, vitamins A and C, manganese, potassium and calcium. The poke-y plant also has been used as a medicinal tea for treating muscular pain, allergies and arthritis.

As their name implies, nettles are a food that bites back. However daunting this may be, the infamous nettle is easily tamed. Whether foraging in the wild or at the market, two principles will help you enjoy nettles sting-free.

• Wear gloves or cover your hands with plastic bags when handling nettles. Their stings are harmless and temporary, but they do hurt.

• Remember that nettles are never a green for the salad bowl – preparing nettles requires blanching the greens in hot water before cooking with them to remove their stinging power. Simply submerge the nettles, stems and all, into a pot of boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Afterward, remove the now-painless plants with tongs and you are ready to get cooking.

Once the nettles have been blanched, they can be handled directly and used in a wide variety of preparations. In general, nettles shine as a replacement for spinach in nearly any recipe. They are delicious as a simple side, sautéed with a little butter or puréed with cream. They are also tasty tossed with pasta or as a pizza topping. Nettles can replace basil when blended with Parmesan, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil for a simple twist on pesto. Finally, nettles shine when sautéed with potatoes and spices as part of an Indian curry.

For anyone curious to try nettles but wary of the preparation, these wild greens have been making their way onto the menus of Bay Area restaurants over the past several years. Several high-end pizzerias in San Francisco and Oakland now feature seasonal pizzas topped with sautéed nettles. I recently spotted nettles as a puree accenting a brisket at The Village Pub in Woodside.

My favorite preparation for nettles is in Swedish nässelsoppa (nettle soup), a popular Scandinavian dish. Nässelsoppa tastes similar to a spinach soup, but with a meaty and substantial flavor characteristic of the unique green.

Nässelsoppa (Swedish Nettle Soup)

• 8 cups stinging nettles, rinsed and stems carefully removed

• 1/2 cup chives, chopped

• 4 cups chicken broth (can substitute vegetable broth)

• 3 tablespoons butter

• 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved

• 1/2 teaspoon white pepper

• Salt, to taste

• 1/2 to 1 cup heavy whipping cream, to taste

Carefully empty bag of nettles into saucepan. Fill saucepan with water to cover and place over medium heat. When water is almost at boil, reduce heat and cook 5-10 minutes.

Use tongs to remove blanched nettles, discarding water and squeezing remaining liquid from nettles with your hands. Coarsely chop cooked nettles on cutting board.

Heat butter in empty saucepan. Add chives and cook 1-2 minutes until softened. Add chopped nettles and broth. Cook another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in white pepper and salt. Stir in heavy cream and serve hot, garnished with a hard-boiled egg.

Serves 4.

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