Nettle picking: the welcome sting of spring / by Leslie Seaton

A few weekends ago, I went out to the woods for the first time since getting back at the end of Feb from my winter trip to Arizona. It was very rainy and muddy, and I couldn't really stay long because I had somewhere to be, but it was still great to see old Pacific Northwest pals like sword ferns, Indian plums plants, and Siberian miners lettuce.

I love my visits home to Arizona, and even within that famously arid state, one kind find pockets of lushness. But they are, indeed, pockets, and I have missed the damp and dripping profusion of green that is the Pacific Northwest wilderness.

So I was happy to see the flora mentioned above, but the true target of my walk was to find nettles.

And I found them, and, even with my limited time, was able to grab enough for a version of a St. Patrick's day dish I was making that week. The plants were plentiful that weekend and the next when I went out with other pals.

If you haven't been out yet, but love nettles, now is the time! We are getting to the end of the season and they are going to soon be too leggy to be tasty. This coming weekend is currently forecast to at least NOT be rainy, so grab your gloves, scissors and bag, and head out for a snip.

If you haven't been before, nettles are a relatively easy first food to forage. First off, make sure you are confident of your identification. They are hard to miss because, of course, they sting, but double check your find against a field guide.

Second, if you don't have a spot in mind, you might be asking, well, Leslie, where do I go?

And here is the hard truth about foragers: even if an forager might usually be a generous soul, willing to give you the last doughnut in the dozen and the shirt off his cannot always guarantee that same open-hearted free-handedness will be evident when asking directly for foraging spots.

In short: I am not going to tell you where to go. I mean, I might tell YOU, Individual Person, were we pals and chatting. (At least I might tell you where to go for nettles, lord knows those buggers are prolific enough to share. I might be cagey with other stuff.) But I am certainly not telling the internet my favorite spot. (Or at least not again, it's possible in a past fit of enthusiasm I shared my spot.)

But here is my tip: more than half of my favorite foraging spots I found VIA the internet. Not necessarily because someone else gave up a favorite foraging spot per se, but because a hiker made a comment about getting stung by nettles or a proliferation of berries in a trip report on the Washington Trails Association site, or some combination of google searching led me to some other online botanical connection. And then I would go out, and scout it out, willing to possibly "lose" a day to just a walk in the woods without any bounty at the end of it. So keep that in mind if you are in need of tracking down your own spot.

To harvest, wear gloves (I use dishwashing gloves: latex are too thin to prevent stinging, and I find gardening gloves too hard to manuever in).

Look for plants that are still relatively small (knee-high and below) and, using scissors, snip off the top sets of opposite leaves. The top 1-3 sets are going to be the most tender, and the plant will be able to regrow after harvest.

Deposit them in your bag and keep going. (Best bags to use are those that stand up on their own, like a paper grocery bag.) Keep in mind when harvesting that they cook down like spinach, so you'll want to get a good volume.

Once you get them home, wash them thoroughly (don't forget, like I often do, that you still need to use the gloves at this point).

If you have only snipped slender, tender stems, and/or you plan to chop well or grind into pesto, you don't necessarily need to remove the leaves from the central stems.

Personally, I tend to use like spinach, so I do take the time to separate the leaves from the stems. I process the leaves for cooking, and save the stems to dry for nettle tea.

Now you need to remove their sting, and there's a few ways to do that.

You can blanch nettles by dropping briefly in boiling water (about a minute), then dunking in cold water. The heat of the boiling water will take out the sting. After they've cooled enough to handle, you can squeeze out all the water to form small balls, wrap the balls in plastic wrap, and stick in the freezer. Throughout the year, you can pull out a ball or two to chop up and use in place of spinach in pastas, sauces, soups.

(Note the water you use for the blanching can be saved to use or freeze as a nettle tea or stock. Despite my love for the outdoors and interest in photographing insects, I am still enough of a delicate flower to feel a tiny bit queasy at the idea of eating them. So I put the blanching liquid through a cheesecloth just in case I missed any critters when I washed them. You don't have to be so fussy.)

If you want to make a soup or sautee with the nettles, you can go ahead and just put the raw nettles right in the dish and cook the sting out of them while preparing them in the dish. Keep in mind you will want to wear gloves or just avoid touching while chopping and/or transporting them to the cooking container. And be sure to cook for at least a minute or two to de-sting.

Some folks also just take their nettles and pulverize into pesto raw, feeling the mechanical grinding will remove the sting. That is probably true (and the addition of salt, acid, etc., will further break down the leaves), but I would exercise extra caution and blanch first.

I exercise the caution because I had read that dehydrating nettles removes their sting. So I dehydrated a bunch for tea, then crumbled it into a jar...and ended up with a mildly stung hand. I'm therefore sometimes a little wary of mechanical de-stinging.

However, there is one way I use nettles raw and mechanically de-sting - in nettle kraut. Last year I made this for the first time, mixing in a big bunch of leaves with cabbage. You have to use a tool to pound up the nettles before massaging with your hands as you typically do for sauerkraut, but basically once pounded them until they are dark green and limp, then they seem safe to massage. The kraut was delicious, and I imagine quite healthy, so I am making another batch this year. Just replace a portion of the cabbage in any sauerkraut recipe you like. Both years I added an allium for a little extra flavor.

A few other ways I love to use nettles...I love this lentil and coconut milk soup, and replace the greens called for in the recipe with nettles. (This would be a time you could use the fresh, if just picked, or just a chopped up ball from the freezer, if processed.)

I also love to make an egg casserole or frittata or strata or any other variation on a hearty egg dish with nettles, a strong salty cheese like feta or parmesan, and red pepper flakes.

And my most recent experiment was a nettle scone. I just modified a cheese-and-herb scone recipe like this one, and used finely minced nettles in place of the herbs. I used about one ball of processed nettle, and the flavor was subtle, so next time, I might up it a little bit.

I also just heard about Hot Cakes' special nettle caramel sauce. It sounds like it's sold out, but that gives me the idea of finding some potential sweet applications for nettles! There are a ton of possibilities.

And there are a ton of nettles out there, so get your gloves and go grab this spring favorite before it's too late!