Because of the extra cool, extra late spring, nettles are at the perfect stage for picking in southern New England right now. Nettles (Urtica dioica) are a perennial herb growing on a hollow, stringy stem. The leaves are coarsely toothed, papery, 1-3 inches long, with a pointed tip and are shaped a bit like an elongated heart. All parts of the plant contain the stings, which are like mini hypodermic needles filled with formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine and other nasty things to irritate your skin. Pick the shoots in early spring before the small, greenish, inconspicuous flowers appear by using gloves. In a large patch, it is easy to fill a large paper bag quickly.
The sting disappears with cooking or drying. You can steam the leaves, but the stems can be too tough and fibrous to eat. We also add the leaves directly to cook in soup, chop them up to use in quiche or spanikopita filling, or eat then lightly stir fried as a green. The stems and leaves can be dried in a dark place to use for an herbal tisane in the winter months when the "green" flavor is a welcome one. Nettles contain wonderful amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, beta carotene, and provide an excellent source of plant-based protein.
Nettle soup with focaccia
This recipe is available in our book, available Spring 2016.