From time to time I see produce in the markets which is so intriguing, amazing, unusual or just plain fabulous that I feel compelled to comment. For example, last Saturday at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market in San Francisco, I noticed that one of the vendors (Knoll Farms of Brentwood) had organic stinging nettles on offer. Having never cooked nettles, I had to buy some. Of course, as a kid in rural Minnesota, I was familiar with the nettle plant (Urtica dioica). I learned at an early age that brushing up against these hearty, tall-growing perennials which we regarded as noxious weeds would soon lead to hot, red burning patches on my skin. I’ve since learned that nettles grow in every state in the U.S., but Hawaii and throughout much of Europe and Asia. Because they like a moist environment, they don’t thrive during our dry California summers, except in riparian environments.
So, we know the downside to nettles, what’s the upside? Huge, it seems. Nettles have long been used medicinally for treating everything from painful muscles and joints, arthritis and eczema, to gout and prostate problems. Nettle products are available as a dried leaf for making tea, as a tincture, an extract or in capsules. Nutritionally, they are a powerhouse, containing vitamins A, C, D as well as iron, potassium, manganese, calcium and about 40 per cent protein. In the kitchen, you can use nettles in much the same way you would use spinach: treat it as a quick-cooking, leafy plant. The taste is mild, subtly sweet, with just a hint of pepperiness. If gathering or cooking nettles, use gloves until after the nettles are cooked. Soaking or any kind of cooking removes the sting. If gathering nettles from large, mature plants, you may want to pick only the top, tender leaves, from young plants, you can easily eat the stem and all. See my recipe for nettle soup below or watch a video about how to make nettle tea here.
SIMPLE NETTLE SOUP
2 1/2 cups rich, but low sodium soup stock or broth
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 cup nettles, larger leaves only or smaller leaves and tender stems cut into 1/2” pieces (lightly packed)
1/2- 1 teaspoon soy sauce or to taste
sprinkle of dark sesame oil or extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly grated carrot (optional) as garnish
Bring the soup broth just to a boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer, add garlic and simmer a few minutes. Add nettles and simmer on very low five minutes or until tender. Season with soy sauce. Turn off heat, add a little sprinkle of the oil. Ladle into two serving bowls and garnish with the carrot.