Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nettles: Worth the trouble?

Young nettle leaves
I am worried about getting sick. 

I went on a trip into the woods last weekend and one by one, everyone else who was along has fallen ill with a nasty and persistent cold. So far I haven't succumbed – but I thought I should look into preventative measures, just to be safe.

I had a kiwi with my morning cereal and squeezed some orange juice in the afternoon, but for the evening I thought leafy greens should be on the menu. What could I forage?

Stinging nettles - Urtica dioica - have been on my radar for a few weeks now. I keep seeing them on hikes, on the edges where forests transition into open sunny pastures or on the margins of parking lots as we return to the car. A friend and I even tried to collect some on a hike near Mt. Tamalpais, but although I'd brought a collecting bag, I'd failed to bring gloves. Sleeves pulled over hands proved to be no match for nettle's formidable sting. 

Why would I bother to collect something with so much potential for pain?

Nettles are extremely nutritious, containing high levels of vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium. They have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties in clinical trials. Their sting is easy to avoid if you follow a few simple rules – plus, they happen to be delicious.

It's the perfect season to collect nettles. Their new growth is the most tasty because the stems can get fibrous as they age. Use gloves and after picking the amount of leaves you'd like to cook, simply apply heat to render the stingers harmless. Nettles are great either blanched or stir fried. I decided to go the soup route, which resulted in a healthy, hearty dinner, which I'm hoping will stave off this cold.   

Simple Potato Nettle Soup
Adapted from Mariquita Farms
  • 2 cups nettle leaves (young shoots)
  • 1 onion
  • 6 small potatoes (skins are fine)
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. parsley
  • 3 cloves garlic or 3 stalks green garlic

Blanch the nettles with one cup of boiling water for about a minute; add onion and garlic and puree. Cut potatoes into small pieces. Simmer pureed mixture with potatoes and remaining water for 45 minutes or until tender. Use a potato masher or immersion blender to mash the potatoes making the soup thick and creamy.

Originally published in Oakland Local on April 2, 2011.

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