Monday, April 1, 2013

Stinging Nettles: The taste of spring

Now is the time when stinging nettles are emerging from their slumber, piercing the veil of leaves on the forest floor. In other words, it's time to get outside and pick the first harvest of spring.

The Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica

The stinging nettle is a invaluable plant. You can find them in damp parts of low-elevation, temperate forests (I have seen them in the UK, and in the Pacific Northwest of the USA) where the ground has been disturbed at some point. They especially like growing next to the trail, or next to roads. They always grow in groups, because they spread by underground rhizome. Be aware that they freely absorb toxins and heavy metals, which is great unless you want to eat them (which we do). This means look around before you pick: Do you see a toxic waste facility? Is there a freshly paved road? Is there a creosote-covered telephone pole? Is there a highway close by? If the answer is yes, it's time to look for a different patch.

I recommend doing a google image search before you go hunting for it, and look at a wide variety of images. If you're in doubt about the identity of the plant you've found, touch it and see if it stings you (arguably the easiest plant to identify for this reason).

When you harvest Stinging Nettles, harvest the top few sets of leaves. Avoid plants that are turning red or purple, which is a sign that they are creating a toxic compound. The spring, not the summer, is the time to harvest nettles. Once they start to seed, and even before, the leaves start to create this compound. Eating the old ones won't kill you, of course, but large amounts eaten long term could cause liver damage.

You may bring gloves, scissors and a paper bag to harvest with, though some people elect to let themselves be stung as a sort of homage to the plant. Being stung by nettles is actually therapeutic, as the reaction causes blood to rush to an area, which can speed healing and mend sore joints. This process is called Urtication, coming from the latin name for nettles Urtica dioica. If in doubt about this strange phenomenon, do some research for yourself.

If you haven't already guessed, nettles are wonderfully edible, and also medicinal. They are one of the prime wild foods of the Pacific Northwest. On top of that, they are incredibly high in protein and minerals. They are especially rich in iron and calcium. Medicinally, they can be used to remineralize, to nourish hair (infused in vinegar and applied to hair), to slow allergies and as a general strengthener. You can order dried nettles for tea on the internet, buy them in an herb store, or pick them yourself and dry them!

Amazing Nettle Tea:
1 Tbsp dried peppermint
1 Tbsp dried nettles
one pinch of green leaf stevia, or honey to sweeten
one quart of boiling water

Pour water over herbs, cover, and let sit for 15 minutes. Strain and drink.

Nettle-Arugula Pesto Recipe:
1 c sunflower seeds
2 T olive oil
3-5 cloves garlic
juice of 1/2 a lemon
two pinches of salt
two handfuls of arugula
three large handfuls of nettles

Step 1: Bring a large pot of water to the brink of boiling. In this pot you will par-boil the nettles.
Add half the nettles to the water (using tongs to handle them will keep you from getting stung). Let them sit for just one minute, and then remove them to a strainer in the sink, using tongs. Let them cool and drain. Keep the water and drink as tea, if you wish.

Step 2: Toast the sunflower seeds. Freshly toasted seeds are a treat. Never buy pre-roasted, as they are rarely fresh enough to be worth it. The oils go rancid quickly once you heat them. To do this, heat a dry pan on high heat. When hot (but not smoking hot), add seeds and stir consistently with a wooden spatula. Don't leave this unattended, or unwatched. I burnt a batch of these a half an hour ago- it's easy to do. Once the seeds are toasted, load them into a food processor and grind them up. They don't need to be a flour, but small and even does the trick.

Step 4: Remove nettle leaves from the stringy stems with your fingers or scissors. Add 1/2 of these to the food processor. Also add garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Pulse. Then, add the rest and pulse.

Step 5: Add the arugula little by little, pulsing as you go. Then, let the food processor run until everything is evenly chopped into a paste.

Eat this on crackers, on sandwiches, or on pasta. Beware that it might be a little spicy.`

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