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The stinging truth about nettles: They’re good

May 6th, 2011 | Category: Cooking

Left to right: Fresh nettles, nettle and horsetail shampoo, glasses of nettle tea, nettle and dandelion buttermilk biscuits, and nettle pecan pesto (front). Remember to wear gloves when harvesting nettles. PHOTO BY SAMANTHA RUSSELL

by Samantha Russell

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a prevalent sight here in the Northwest in the spring, much to the bane of some hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who have suffered stings from this potent little plant. Despite its armory of stinging hairs called trichomes, the stinging nettle has long been harvested and used for its medicinal and culinary benefits.

Spring foraging for nettles is the best, and as a rule of thumb you should always gather plants that are less than a foot tall because once they get much bigger and sprout their inconspicuous green flowers, consuming them can cause gastrointestinal distress. Always gather nettles while wearing thick gloves and close-toed shoes to protect yourself from the stings. If you do happen to get stung, don’t fear! Just bruise some bracken fern or plantain leaves and rub them over the affected area and you’ll be good as new. The trichomes also lose their potency after about 20 minutes from being cut down, but can still inflict an unpleasant nip.

To prepare fresh nettles for consumption, boil them in a large pot of water for two minutes and then blanch the nettles in a large ice water bath. Place the cooled nettles in a kitchen towel and wring out all the excess water. The water from boiling them can be strained out and consumed as tea. Prepare ahead this season, and save some of your harvest as blanched or dried servings in the freezer for use year-round.

Nettles can be used for a variety of purposes, and provide numerous health benefits to those who ingest it. Nettles in peak season can be up to 25 percent protein, and are also high in fiber, Vitamin A, K, and C, silicon, and potassium. Nettles are a common potherb and can be used as a substitute for spinach in many recipes. Consumption of nettles over a long period of time has been shown to help alleviate issues with lungs, stomach, urinary tract, and anemia. Dried and powdered nettles can be used to stop bleeding, and nettle infusions applied to the scalp help to stimulate hair growth and treat dandruff. Nettles are also helpful to gardeners as their presence indicates areas of high fertility, they attract beneficial insects, and because of their high nitrogen content they act as an incredible compost activator.

Freshly cut spring nettle leaves. PHOTO BY SAMANTHA RUSSELL

Hopefully this brief introduction to nettles has inspired you to don your work gloves, grab a basket, and get out exploring the wonderful Northwest for this incredibly versatile plant.

Local resident Samantha Russell enjoys cooking, writing and photography.

Fresh Nettle Pesto

2 cups blanched and drained nettles (squeezed dry and chopped well) about 6 cups raw
3-6 cloves garlic to taste
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup pecans (or other nut)
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (optional)

Cook the fresh nettles in a large pot of boiling water for about 2 minutes. Transfer the nettles (using tongs) to a large bowl of ice water. When cooled, put nettles in a towel to wring out excess water. Chop your prepared 2 cups of nettles, and throw everything in the food processor until it reaches the desired consistency. Enjoy on pasta, bruschetta, etc.

Making the nettle pecan pesto. PHOTO BY SAMANTHA RUSSELL

Nettle and Dandelion Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups unbleached flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
~ ¼ cup dandelion flowers (yellow part only!)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk
¾ cup finely chopped fresh nettle leaves

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine flour and baking soda in a large bowl. Incorporate the butter until the mixture resembles a crumbly meal. In a second bowl, combine buttermilk, dandelion flowers and chopped nettle leaves. Fold this mixture into the dry ingredients to form a soft dough. Knead slightly til dough just comes together, adding a little flour if needed.  Roll out dough to ½-inch thick and use a floured Mason jar rim to cut the dough into rounds and place on an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake biscuits for 18 minutes, until light golden brown.

Nettle Shampoo

8 oz water
3 oz liquid castile soap
1-2 tablespoons dried herbs
20-60 drops essential oil
¼ tsp olive oil or jojoba oil

Make an infusion by letting the herbs soak in boiling water for 4 hours (or more). Strain the herbs and combine all ingredients in a recycled plastic bottle. Mix well before each use due to the natural separation. Recommended herbs: Nettles (help hair growth/strength), Rosemary (helpful with scalp conditions like dandruff), horsetails (help retain shine and moisture). Recommended essential oils: lavender, basil, eucalyptus, lemongrass, peppermint, or tea tree. Experiment with your favorite combinations.

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