Cooking With Nettles: Spring's Precious Sting
Nettles- the edible leaf that is also known as the devil's leaf.
Some foods don’t have a real come-hitherness about them. Who was the bold soul to first slurp a raw oyster? Artichokes have thorns and stickers growing on every surface. Rhubarb is notorious for its super sour pucker power, and, if carelessly ingested, its leaves are quite capable of killing a foolhardy forager. The edible that really amazes me is the stinging nettle, also known as ‘devil’s leaf.’ In the field it appears to be just another innocuous weed. Brush up against it with bare skin, however, and that patch of unprotected epidermis instantly feels like it’s on fire.
The sting comes from formic acid, the same venom that is found in bee and ant stings, which is released when the tiny pointed hairs covering the leaves break off on being touched. The sensation is what gives the nettle its botanical name Urtica from the Latin word urere, which means ‘to burn.’ The term nettle derives from the Anglo-Saxon word noedl meaning ‘needle.’
My first encounter with the stinging nettle occurred one fine spring evening at County Cork’s legendary Arbutus Lodge (alas, now closed). Spying nettle soup on the menu and never having tasted it before, I promptly ordered a bowl and asked if there were any leaves in the kitchen that I could see. A few minutes after bringing the soup (delicious!) my server reappeared cradling a sprig of nettles in a pristine white napkin. Thinking ‘what an elegant presentation’ and unaware of the plant’s reputation, I picked it up and immediately my fingers felt like I had touched a glowing ember. With profuse apologies for not having warned me – why should she, as every Irish child knows better than to fondle fresh nettles – the waitress informed me that in the wild the plants grow alongside dock, the leaves of which are a folk cure for the skin irritation.
Unfortunately, there were no dock leaves in the larder. Nearly twenty years passed before I encountered nettles again. Recently at a local farmer’s market, I spotted a bin of the greens accompanied by a large hand-printed sign that read: “Caution Handle Carefully – nettles sting the skin!” Despite the warning, shoppers one after another picked up the bunches and just as quickly dropped them.
The grower – an Irish-American former U.S. Marine turned organic farmer – hastily assured his customers that not only does cooking or freezing neutralize the sting but that nettles are loaded with nutrients and, like fiery chiles with which today’s gourmet cooks are well acquainted, well worth the extra bit of caution needed when preparing them. Indeed, nettles are a rich source of vitamin C and potassium. They contain more iron than spinach, anti-histamines that help alleviate allergy symptoms, and serotonin, which imparts a feeling of well-being. Nettles are also reputed to be a blood purifier, useful in treating kidney infections, and an aid to hemoglobin production in red blood cells. Since the 6th century, they have been eaten in Ireland to relieve the pain of arthritis. Also, if you wanted to keep the rheumatics away for a year, it was customary to eat nettle soup three times during May, beginning on May 1, the spring festival of Beltaine.
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