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Wild Greens: My affair with stinging nettles

February 11, 2011 | 12:27 pm

Nettle patch1 (1 of 1) “Good for stimulating the blood,” a seller at the farmers market told me once, laughing, as he pretended to beat himself on the shoulders with a bunch of stinging nettles. 

Yikes, I’m thinking, as I go skirt the edge of the nettle patch that this year’s rains brought me and a leaf brushes against my ankle. It hurts. I don’t want the nettles to go to waste -- or to go to seed -- before I have a chance to use them, so I'm out here picking them (gloves on, of course).

The other day I made a nettle soup from a recipe in Jonathan Waxman’s book “Italian, My Way“ (Simon & Schuster). Basically you wash and chop the nettles finely, sweat some onions and garlic in olive oil in a big pot, add nettles and a little parsley and cook for a few minutes, then add water, bring to a boil and cook for 15 minutes. Let cool, and put in the blender. Season with salt, pepper and paprika.

Nettle soup1 (1 of 1) The first take was a bit medicinal since the soup is basically just nettles and water. The next day I tried mellowing the taste with a little leek and potato so it didn’t seem quite so thin. I added a touch of cream, not so much that you’d really notice, which definitely improved the taste and garnished the soup with hot paprika and some sauteed fresh shiitake.

That soup, though, barely made a dent in the nettle patch. Next project: nettle pasta from former Oliveto chef Paul Bertolli’s book “Cooking by Hand.” You work the boiled nettles into the semolina dough just the way you would spinach. I remember loving his nettle pasta when I had it at Oliveto years ago.

I want to make a nettle pizza, too. 

In Italy, there’s a great tradition of foraging for wild greens, whether it’s dandelion leaves or arugula or nettles. Now I begin to see why. 

--S. Irene Virbila

Photo credits: S. Irene Virbila