In Europe, cooking stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) is common, and a right of Spring. There aren’t many American’s that crave them, but that’s slowly changing. They’re a special plant, and the first thing I look for after a long Midwestern winter. Why would you want to eat them? Because they’re delicious, and incredibly healthy.
In the kitchen, they’re versatile too, you can treat them like a vegetable, or like wilted greens. The key to getting nettles that are good to eat though is getting them at the right age. In a nutshell I like nettles that are young, and less than a foot high.
Nettles that have begun to make seeds are getting mature, you can still eat them, but I like to use a scissors to clip off only the tender new growth. After a few months of growing the stems get tough and fibrous. Of course you can always pick the leaves off, but the tender stem is half the fun.
To remove the stingers from nettles, soak them in water overnight, or blanch them in boiling, salted water and then blanch in an ice bath or cook immediately from there. You have to be careful though since nettles can overcook easily, after they’re wilted they’re ready to go. 90% of the time, if I’m serving nettles in a restaurant, I’m probably going to blanch them first, then roughly chop, which helps to distribute their texture and prevents them from looking long and stringy, which I find unappealing.
Here’s a couple ways I like to enjoy them:
- Wilted with butter
- Chopped up in soup
- Made into a smooth puree after blanching by putting in a highspeed blender
- Tossed in with warm grains
- Dried and used to make great healthful tea.
From a restaurant perspective, nettles are expensive. Since not a lot of farmers cultivate them for sale, their price is steep, usually around 10$/lb, take that into account the next time you root them out of your garden.
Stinging nettles aren’t the only nettles I know of either, there’s also wood nettle or Laportea canadensis, which has leaves that are more round than the pointed leaves of stinging nettles, both are good, and give great results as long as you harvest them young. Here’s a very basic walk through of how I like to blanch them before adding to dishes at the restaurant.
Blanched Stinging Nettles
- Ice water
- Plunge the nettles into simmering, salted water for 2-3 seconds, then remove immediately to a container of ice water.
- After they are cooled, remove the nettles from the ice water, then squeeze out the water.
- I like to form the nettles into a ball with my hand, then I chop with a knife as if making a pound sign #, so that the stems get severed and they’re all in similar sized pieces.
- From here the nettles can be cooked, refrigerated for up to 3-4 days, or frozen in an airtight container.