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Getting to Know Nettles
Copyright by Terese Allen

Nettles are a sadly underrated “weed” that grows profusely throughout most of the United States. The variety known as wood nettles prefer moist, shaded forest areas, while stinging nettles often cluster in sunny patches where the soil is rich and has been disturbed by human settlement--along trails, railroad beds and fence lines.

A spring green that’s sweet and mild-mannered in flavor and high in minerals and vitamins, nettles are often compared to spinach. But while nettles can replace spinach in just about any cooked dish, few people dare to eat them raw. That’s because the tapered, jagged-edged leaves contain an antagonizing irritant that will sting fingers, legs or any exposed flesh that comes into contact with them. Foragers wear gloves and long sleeves to harvest nettles, but if you’ve purchased your bunch at a farmers’ market or grocery store, chances are you don’t have to worry about getting stung, for the prickliness dissipates within hours of harvesting.

 
nettles

In addition, heat dissolves the hair-like stinging needles of even the freshest leaves, so cooked nettles are completely safe to eat. Briefly steamed or sautéed (5-10 minutes will do it), they have a rich but abstract vegetal flavor that make them a good mix in all sorts of dishes, especially soups and savory tarts. Like spinach, nettles lose much of their volume when cooked, but unlike many greens, they retain their deep green color.

Try a recipe for Potato, Leek and Nettles Soup.