I have a love of wild things and of old things. When the season’s right, I spend my time venturing on foot into the hills that surround our little mountain town. There, with a mindful and ethical approach, I gather wild foods in a basket slung over my arm at the elbow, and bring them home to eat. Spring brings dandelions and nettles, summer brings raspberries and the tiniest alpine strawberries while porcini, oyster mushrooms, and chanterelles erupt from the dank and wet earth of the forest floor.
The first stop on our recent travels, was a a little grass-fed dairy in the heart of Devon where we nestled into a canvas-covered cabin and cooked farmhouse stews, hashes and omelets over a woodburning stove. We watched cows come into the pasture in the morning, mowing down the verdant grass with audible munching before settling down to rest beneath the yawning grey English sky. There, at our campsite, I enjoyed the privilege of gathering one of my favorite foods of spring – stinging nettle.
Benefits of Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle is a wild and unruly plant, and, like many wild foods, it is extraordinarily rich in nourishment. Particularly rich in beta carotene and other antioxidants as well as B vitamins, folate, potassium, iron, sulphur and vitamin C, stinging nettle puts spinach and kale to shame.
There’s some evidence that stinging nettle can help alleviate seasonal allergies and hayfever, as it acts as a natural antihistamine (source), as well as help to reduce blood pressure and alleviate prostate problems in men.
Working with Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle contains formic acid, an evolutionary measure that helps to insure its survival by deterring predation. Fresh nettle will sting any skin it comes into contact with causing itchy, burning welts that disappear relatively quickly and that do not typically cause permanent damage; however, you must take extra caution when working with nettle. I wear long sleeves, long pants, boots and gloves when gathering and cooking with fresh nettle. Once cooked, nettle loses its sting and can be handled and eaten without issue.
Where to Find Stinging Nettle
Nettles grow wild in the spring and early summer across North America, Europe and some parts of Asia. Not only do I pick stinging nettle when it is available fresh, but I also receive it in messy bundles from our local CSA – a special CSA that not only provides excellent heirloom vegetables and fruits, but also emphasizes culinary and healing herbs as well as wild foods. When the season grows too hot or too cold, I purchase organic dried nettle leaf online for use in herbal tisanes and infusions like this nettle and red clover infusion that’s always a favorite of mine.
Recipes for Stinging Nettle
With a flavor similar to spinach, stinging nettle pairs well with cream and eggs and in other foods as a substitute for spinach, and makes an excellent omelet paired with chives and sharp cheddar cheese (get the recipe below). I like to use the fresh nettle in cream-based soups similar to this recipe for Lovage Soup or in fresh herbal infusions like this one. Dried nettle (available here) is excellent in teas, infusions and tisanes, and makes an excellent tonic for year-round use.
Stinging Nettle and Sharp Cheddar Omelet
After spending the morning gathering nettles, and with little else at my disposal but the products of the dairy – butter, eggs, cream, cheese and milk – I prepared this recipe for a simple omelet packed with stinging nettles and sprinkled with fresh chives. We served it with fresh berries and cream. Stinging nettle, like other leafy greens, pairs well with full-fat dairy as the fats in the dairy products (rich in fat-soluble vitamins and minerals themselves) help your body to better absorb the antioxidants contained within the nettle leaf.
- Drop the nettle leaves into a medium sized stockpot, sprinkle with salt and pour in 1 to 2 tablespoons water. Set the pot over medium-low heat on your stove, and cover it with a tight-fitting lid. Allow the nettles to wilt until they release their juice, soften and grow limp - about 20 minutes. Remove the nettle leaves with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a fine-mesh sieve (like this one), press them firmly with the back of a wooden spoon so their juice runs out, then set them aside while you prepare the omelet.
- Beat the eggs with heavy cream until loosely combined, and not frothy.
- Warm the clarified butter in a large and well-seasoned cast-iron skillet (like this one) over medium-high heat. When it melts, pour in the eggs, swirl the pan to promote an even layer of egg and let them cook in the hot butter until the edges begin to ruffle ever so slightly - about 5 to 10 seconds. Reduce the heat to low, and cover the skillet with a lid for 20 to 30 seconds or until the eggs set. Lift off the cover, and fill one side of the omelet with the wilted nettles, sprinkle with chives and top with slices of cheddar cheese. Fold the unfilled half of the omelet over the filling, return the lid and let it sit a further 20 to 30 seconds, then serve.