Our farm has two nettle patches: one up front by the old sheep shed, and another larger patch in the back by our orchard. Every April the nettles start to grow, and I wander out on weekends to harvest bag-fulls with pruning shears, hands protected by rubber kitchen gloves. Green, tender young nettles are precisely what our bodies crave after a winter of hibernation. And it feels dangerous, in a sexy sort of way, to eat food that can hurt you.
Stinging nettle handling tips
Use rubber or latex gloves and long sleeves when handling nettles, or they will sting you. Nettles are safe to touch and eat once they’ve been cooked or dried. Frozen nettles will still sting you once they thaw.
We first learned from an old episode of The Good Life, a 1970s British sitcom about suburban homesteaders, that burdock leaves are a natural antidote to nettles’ sting: just rub your burning skin with a leave. Coincidentally (or not), burdock and nettles often grow in the same area.
Harvest, preparation and storage tips
Nettle stems are still tender when young, so you can harvest most of the plant in April. Once the stems get tough I just harvest the leaves and top buds. I process all my nettles by soaking them in small, manageable batches in a big pot or sink full of cold water, with some salt added “to chase out the bugs,” as someone once told me. I also stir the nettles with my hands to draw out any bugs and wash off any dirt or grass.
Once the nettles are clean I dry them in my lettuce spinner, then cram them into large sealable plastic bags and push out as much air as possible before sealing. Bagged nettles will keep for a few weeks in your fridge, or can go into the freezer for out-of-season nettle soup. When using a bag of frozen nettles, I crush the nettles through the bag with my hands, then dump the bag into the soup pot: this way I don’t have to handle nettles and risk injury.
Basic steamed nettle recipe
Cook like any leafy green. If the stalks or leaves are large, cut the nettles into bite-sized pieces with scissors or a knife. Place nettles in a big pan or pot with some butter and 1/2 cup water or stock. On low-medium heat, stir until the butter melts, then cover the pot and steam the nettles for a few minutes until they turn bright green. Quickly remove from heat, season and serve. I love nettles with a bit of salt and/or grated parmesan cheese on top. You can also add steamed nettles to pasta (with sauteed onions and/or a cream sauce), or a cold pasta or grain salad.