One of the first wild greens of spring along with fiddlehead ferns, nettles are no fun to run into on a hiking trail. But if you're wearing sturdy gloves and have a canvas bag to stash them in, you've got a treat in store. Contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food elucidates.
Tiny glass-like needles, each with a bulbous base filled with chemical irritants, cover the leaves and stems of stinging nettles. The lightest touch shatters them and unleashes a painful brew of neurotransmitters. The smart thing is to avoid stinging nettles altogether.
First ouch, then itch.
Unless you want to eat them, that is.
Heat neutralizes their sting, and when cooked, nettles have a robust, almost meaty flavor. The leaves are high in calcium, iron and a surprising amount of protein. 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 cookbook. Called subrich (pron. 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.
Nettle sformato (recipe below).
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 Farm) and sometimes at New Seasons Market.
This Italian savory flan makes a delicious vehicle for nettles, but almost any vegetable will work, too.* The name comes from the verb sformare, which among other things means to umold, and most sformati are turned out of their typically single-serving baking dishes. I skip that step and serve sformati right from the pan.
Start with about a cup of nettles that have been boiled for about a minute, then squeezed dry and chopped coarsely (always save the nettle cooking water; it tastes great and is much better than any grocery store stock). Combine in a mixing bowl with 2 eggs, about a cup of ricotta, a half cup of cream (or milk, but cream is much better), a couple of tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, a half teaspoon of salt, some black pepper, and pinch of nutmeg.
Heat the oven to 350°, butter a baking dish, and cook the sformato for about 35 minutes or until a knife comes out clean. You can eat it hot, but I think sformati taste best if cooled a bit.
More recipes for nettles.
* I've had sformati made with lacinato kale, artichokes and cardoons, all delicious. So feel free to experiment!