The same Nettles that sting your legs when you brush up against them on a spring hike have long been used in the kitchen. They are packed with nutrition and have a taste akin to spinach, though their color, once cooked, is a more vibrant shade of green-more jade than shamrock.
Per cup, these dark, leafy greens contain 37 calories, 2 grams of protein, and 6 grams of dietary fiber. In addition, they contain more than a third of your daily Vitamin A, 8 % of the RDA of iron (twice as much as spinach)-and 42% of the RDA of calcium. The calcium in many leafy greens (particularly spinach, chard and beet greens) is not as bioavailable to the body, due to the natural presence of high levels of oxalic acids before cooking, but Nettles do not contain much of these oxalates. And, according to Gaia Herbs Medical Educator and Scientific Advisory Board Member Dr. Mary Bove, N.D., Nettles actually remove oxalates from tissues throughout the body. Nettles also contain Vitamin C, which aids in the absorption of plant-based, or non-heme, iron.
These greens are plentiful in spring and early summer throughout much of the US, which is also when they are best harvested. They grow in fertile but undisturbed soils, often in forests or wooded areas, as well as grasslands, hedgerows and along riverbanks. Pick only the top few leaves-and do it before the herb flowers. (Be mindful of the bite of these tasty plants. Wear gloves and long sleeves and pants, and use scissors when harvesting.) Dr. Bove advises that "the older and more mature the plant, the more stinging it is, with younger plants and tops being less so." While Nettles are easy to grow and self-populate quickly, it is always important to be mindful of plant populations when wild-harvesting. Only pick what you need and do not pull them up by the roots. Avoid Nettles that grow along busy roads or in polluted areas. (At Gaia, we are lucky to have them growing on our 350-acre Certified Organic farm!)
To dull their sting, soak the Nettles in water, cook them or dry them. After that, the possibilities are endless!
Dr. Bove said that one of her herbal teachers used dried, ground Nettles in a shaker-top bottle as a way to get more plant-based nutrition into meals.
You can dry your own harvested Nettles by spreading them on a drying rack or baking sheet, in single layer so they dry evenly. We recommend drying the plants for at least 12 hours, turning them over occasionally to promote even drying. You can dry Nettles in the sun, but place them between clean, lint-free towels so they don't blow away! You can also purchase dried Nettles from your local health food store.
To make a Nettles Herb Blend at home, combine dried Nettles with a good salt, black pepper, and your favorite dried herbs in a clean coffee grinder until combined. To boost the nutrition even more, consider grinding and adding seeds such as flax or sesame.
The simplest way to cook Nettles is to blanch and shock them. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil, add the Nettles, and allow to cook for 30 seconds, until they turn bright green. Immediately transfer them, using a slotted spoon, to a large bowl filled with ice water. Drain well, then wring in a lint-free towel to remove excess moisture. Set aside until ready to use.
Once you've cooked your Nettles, the sky is the limit. Use them as you would any other cooked green, such as spinach. Here are some of our favorites:
- Swap for spinach in any pasta Florentine. Roughly chop those cooked nettles, then add to your ricotta-herb mixture. This is exquisite in lasagna or manicotti.
- In place of Basil in a pesto, or in a 50/50 mix with Basil.
- In a compound butter. Allow a pound of unsalted butter to come to room temperature, then fold in ¼ cup cooled, finely chopped cooked Nettles, along with salt and pepper to taste. Roll into a log and refrigerate or freeze. This is delightful atop simple steamed vegetables and can be combined with other herbs.
- In a green smoothie. Use a handful of Nettles (cooked or raw) in your next smoothie. It will not sting when you drink it because the Nettles have been exposed to liquid and broken down. Their flavor is indistinguishable in a smoothie.
- In stuffed mushrooms. Sauté shallots in olive oil, along with dried herbs. Add chopped uncooked Nettles and breadcrumbs. Cook until the Nettles are vibrant in color. Remove from heat, add the zest of a lemon and a handful of freshly grated Parmesan, then stuff into cremini mushrooms. Bake until golden.
- In a stuffed chicken breast. Per serving, combine 2 T finely chopped, cooked nettles with 2 minced sun-dried tomatoes, and 1 ounce chèvre. Stuff into a chicken breast that has been pounded thin, then bake until the chicken is cooked through.
- In a spinach-artichoke dip. Use a 50/50 mix of Nettles and spinach in your favorite dip. This would also be tasty in a cold spinach dip, like the kind that is often served with crudités and pumpernickel bread.
- Chopped and cooked with grains or quinoa. For a quick weeknight meal, roughly chop 1 cup of raw Nettles per person and add to the pot during the last 10 minutes you cook your grains. Season as desired with herbs, salt, and pepper.
- With poached eggs. Use Nettles in place of spinach in Eggs Florentine, or simply top a generous portion of sautéed Nettles with a poached egg.
- In an omelet. Try chopped, cooked Nettles with fresh tarragon, chives, and a soft cheese, such as fresh ricotta.
- Atop pizza. Get creative with pickled Ramps and Nettle pesto, perhaps with some spicy sausage.
- In a chimichurri. Traditionally used in Argentina to top grilled meats, chimichurri is a mixture of fresh herbs with plenty of lemon juice, good quality olive oil, salt, and pepper. Try 2 parts chopped, cooked Nettles, Cilantro, and Parsley to 1 part Thyme and Tarragon. Adjust the ratio of lemon and olive oil to taste, then season generously with salt and pepper. The consistency should be thinner than pesto.
Dr. Bove shared an easy, healthy (and delicious!) recipe that reminds her of her days living in New England as an herbal student - Nettle Loaf. For a student, this was an affordable meal that was also nutritious.
Dr. Mary Bove's Nettle Loaf
- Mix 2 cups cooked rice with 1 cup of pureed nettles, 1 chopped clove garlic, ½ cup chopped onions, a little black pepper, and 2 eggs.
- Pat it into a greased loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.
- Serve atop a Wild Ramp Sauce or pesto. (Try rolling it into balls and baking, then topping with a simple tomato sauce.)
Nettles are a humble green, but once their delicious taste is discovered, they are sure to earn a regular place on your spring and summer menus. (They can also be frozen or dried and used throughout the year.)