The last day of February found me skulking around a moist woodland near sea-level, zeroing in on signs of spring. One of my favorite harbingers of the season is now rearing its quarrelsome head: the stinging nettle. Apologies to those foragers still shoveling snow, but know that green things are stirring beneath white blankets.
In my neighborhood the nettles are just now reaching a perfect height for the first harvest. Most are about six inches off the ground, a few nearing a foot. At this stage they're tender and nutrient-packed, and you don't have to worry about trimming the stems. I picked two grocery bag's worth.
Long sleeves and gloves are de rigeur. I use kitchen shears to lop them off at the heel. It doesn't take long for the fresh smell of the cut nettles to envelope you like a cool, minty fog. Unlike grass clippings, with their scent of decomposition, cut nettles smell like the life is rising out of them and swirling around you. It's a pleasant and energizing aroma—energy being the key word here. Stinging nettles have more protein than almost any other plant in the kingdom. They're loaded with minerals.
Even with gloves, my first few cuts are hesitant. Maybe this will be the year nettles learn how to pierce rubber. Phantom itches develop, and you start to wonder whether the nettles can shoot some of their noxious chemicals into the air as they fall to the shears. Those nasty little hairs work on a principle similar to a bee's sting: formic acid and histamine combine to jolt the unwary.
It's amazing we eat these things.
When I first started cooking with nettles they were still somewhat exotic, but the market for wild foods has exploded in recent years. Now it seems like most people have seen them on a restaurant menu or tasted a friend's homemade nettle soup. Soup was always my first choice too, though now I'm eating nettles other ways. You can pretty much substitute them into any recipe that calls for spinach, such as lasagna.
Stay tuned for Stinging Nettle Ravioli...