Wood nettle shoots are a great example of the different gifts wild plants give us at different stages of their yearly growth. Even more so to me, they represent my narrow sight, and how you can read about something, know it exists, and is there for the taking, but not truly “see it” until you have one of those aha moments.
I knew about wood nettle shoots (Laportea canadensis) from reading about them in Sam Thayers first book The Forager’s Harvest, and remembered he said they were good, but it wasn’t until he mentioned them in passing, and pointed them out to me while we were digging black walnut taproots one day that I finally understood. I’m guilty as anyone of lumping leafy greens into a sort of catch all bin, which is easy to do since most wild greens can be substituted for each other or cooked interchangeably in recipes. (unfortunately, common stinging nettles don’t really have shoots, so you can’t really substitute them here).
As they grow and prepare to flower, a lot of plants have a shoot stage, and if you catch them at the right time, you’ll get treated to juicy, tender stems, along with your serving of greens. Wood nettle shoots might not be as thick as asparagus, but they’re far easier to harvest (if you don’t have a garden) and, well, they’re delicious!
To sweeten the deal, at the shoot stage the plant isn’t the only thing thats undeveloped. The stingers too, aren’t really pronouced enough to bother me, although if you grab a whole bunch you might get a little tingle. It’s a far cry from the fury they bring in the summer though, which is a sting far more powerful than their more well known cousins common nettle (Urtica dioica).
Cooking them is easy, too. Your little wood nettle shoots need nothing more than a quick steam to reach a tender, vibrant green deliciousness. You could definitely blanch them too, but I mostly save blanching for greens where I might want to tame their flavor, or remove some of the oxalates if I know I’m serving them to someone who’s sensitive. Either way, they’re delicious.
The following is a simple example of how I prepare them: steamed for a few minutes and dressed with some great tasting oil and salt. Sam Thayers water oak acorn oil has been on heavy rotation lately, and other nuts oils are great too, but butter or your favorite olive oil is perfectly fine.
Steamed wood nettle shoots with acorn oil
- Steamer basket and appropriately sized tall sided pot, like a small pasta pot
- 8 oz fresh wood nettle shoots washed and dried if needed
- 1/4 cup acorn oil butter, or your favorite oil
- Kosher salt or flaky finishing salt like maldon, to taste
- Put a few inches of water in the bottom of the pot, then turn the heat to high, bring to a boil, then add the steamer basket, wood nettle shoots, and cover the pot. Turn the heat to medium high and set a timer for 5 minutes.
- After five minutes, taste a shoot.
- The shoots should be bright green and tender, but still have a bit of life to them--don't cook them to mush.
- Allow guests to serve themselves from the pot so the shoots hold their heat. Pass the salt and oil at the table.