Nettles are just those stinging weeds that take over most of the world’s roadsides—until you learn how to cook them. As soon as you apply heat, the stinging toxin disappears, and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle”, your nettles can be transformed into beer, tea, soup, pesto, and more. (Note: The beer takes slightly longer, and unless you let the fermentation choose its own time of conclusion, your bottles, like mine, will explode and leave a sticky, glass-shard-ridden mess all over your kitchen.)
Selling nettles at the farmers market gets us laughed at, but the reason we do is because roadsides are often sprayed with weed-killers, or at least dusted with exhaust. That said, being completely honest, I must admit I wouldn’t pay for nettles—they’re available for free in lots of places that don’t get sprayed or driven by.
If you go collect nettles yourself, wear gloves or you’ll risk a sting. Recent studies indicate that oxalic acid and tartaric acid may cause the toxin, and although most people usually just get itchy, burning red bumps, the stings of one New Zealand species have actually killed a human before.
Despite these obvious disincentives, nettles are credited with medicinal qualities said to cure asthma, kidney problems, chronic pain, hay fever, and anemia. Some nettle treatments stop bleeding; others thin out thick blood. They’re also believed to act as diuretic and (here’s a new word for you) galactagogue, or lactation inducer.
I’ve been told that if you grasp a nettle firmly, you’ll crush the toxic hairs and they won’t sting you, but I must not have the balls to do it properly. I like the old rhyme, though: “Tenderly you stroke a nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains."
Word to the wise: If you’re just going to cook them as greens, nettle tops (i.e. the shoots of young nettles), are better than the older, tougher, plant they evolve into by the end of the summer.
Try this nettle soup recipe for yourself:
2 diced medium sized potatoes
2 roughly chopped onions
1 stick celery
1 pint of stock
½ pint of milk
Salt and pepper
Add the stock and milk into the saucepan and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Liquidize in a blender and season with salt and pepper.