Thursday, September 04, 2008

Nothin' But Nettle

In my quest to learn more about wild edible plants, I've been fascinated with stinging nettles. How, I wondered, could a plant so prickly be tamed onto my dinner plate?

When first I learned about them, I actually tried to grow some along the fence at my house. (I know, I know -- who in their right mind would plant stinging nettles on purpose?) Unfortunately for my experiment -- but perhaps fortunately for the new owners of the house -- the seeds failed to germinate and I had no nettles to call my own.

This year, though, I've managed to find small patches here and there around both the Farm and my Victory Garden. And I, like a hungry fool, rejoiced.

See, nettles are known to be a good spring tonic, taken as an infusion or in soup, because they contain a good bit of vitamin C, stimulate digestion, and generally strengthen the body with their ability to take iron from the soil and nourish those who eat them. What's not to love?

Oh, right, the stinging bit. People and books advise you not to handle nettles with your bare hands because they are covered with little prickly hairs containing histamine, which sets off an allergic reaction in the form of little red welts and a fierce tingling sensation. Some folks, though, seek out that exact reaction in order to alleviate their arthritis. And I confess, unless I'm dealing with big nettles, I'll pick them with my bare hands, despite the tingling -- it's not a wholly pleasant sensation, but it's not unpleasant either. Call me strange or masochistic if you like, but I guess it doesn't bother me overmuch.

Anyway, I've been pulling nettles left and right and drying them mainly for herbal teas and infusions. But I've also wanted to try cooking with them and just haven't gotten around to it until now.

Since I pulled several small shoots at the garden on Monday, I thought this would be a good time to try a recipe for frittatine di ortica or nettle fritters, found over at Culinate. As always when cooking with nettles, I cooked them in boiling water first before chopping them for the fritters. (After boiling, they lose their sting, so you can handle them with no problem.)

Following the recipe, I mixed the nettles with breadcrumbs, garlic, an egg, salt, and Parmesan cheese in My Wonderful Parents' mini food processor, and I ended up with a vivid green flecked soft dough, just the right consistency for shaping small fritters.

I heated a little olive oil in the pan, added the fritters (a whopping five, as I didn't have much in the way of ingredients), and cooked them on both sides until nicely browned and a little crispy.

So how do they taste? you may ask. I can't say as though I really detect a strong nettle flavor, though the greenness of them mingles well with the other ingredients. And since I do love the crispy edge of pan-fried foods, I definitely enjoyed this little treat, complete with a small garden-fresh tomato on the side.

Naturally, I saved the cooking water as I had a ready-made infusion for drinking. (And as one of my herbal books notes, a cotton pad soaked in this infusion can also be used to ease the pain of burns, insect bites, and other wounds -- impressive stuff!) The infused water could also be used in soup stock, but I'm happy just to sip the chilled infusion on a warm night and feel refreshed (as well as frugal).

Dinner and drinks from one plant -- why nettle for less?

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At 9/05/2008 11:32 AM, OpenID eatclosetohome said...

There are different kinds of nettles, and different people are differently sensitive to each. Wood nettles don't sting me at all. Also - you don't want to harvest nettles once they start to bloom.

You can also throw nettles into the cooking water with your rice, and the rice will be infused with the minerals from the nettles.

Your nettle infusion is pretty! If you want a stronger infusion, fill a jar with dried nettles, cover with boiling water, and let it sit overnight. It will be dark, like green maple syrup, and almost as thick. It really takes that much soaking to get the minerals out of the leaves (though you lose some vitamins in the process).

At 9/05/2008 12:03 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Thanks for all the excellent information, Emily! I have yet to try a straight infusion of my dried nettle leaves, but that's something to look forward to. I figured this infusion would be fairly weak (and actually it faded a bit between pouring it into the jar and taking the photo), so I'll have to try the stronger one sometime, too.

At 9/05/2008 12:50 PM, Anonymous Jen (Modern Beet) said...

I had never eaten nettles before this spring (though I had been stung while hiking before then!) -- I think they are absolutely delicious!! My favorite preparation is actually plain nettle tisane -- I liken the taste to spring itself!

that's interesting that the sting of nettles can help alleviate arthritis... I wonder if it would help with carpal tunnel at all?

At 9/05/2008 1:04 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Good way of putting it, Jen! That's why I hope to start foraging for nettles earlier next year.

As a friend of mine wryly said, perhaps the way the sting helps with arthritis is that the pain of the sting takes your mind off any other pain! :-) But I think there is some medical reason for it, too... see the Wikipedia link in the post.


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