I have a fetish for wild foods.
But the truth of the matter is that I’ve dreamed and written about them far more than I’ve actually foraged. More spring morel seasons have come and gone before I set boot in the damp, piney woods than I like to acknowledge.
12 16 years in the Oregon mountains I am still largely a wannabe wildcrafter.
Like deer, coyotes and even cougars, the wild often comes to us.
And so it was when I weeded my garden beds for a new year of planting last week I was lucky enough to confront a standing army of wicked-looking leaves.
I rolled down my sleeves, gripped a pruner firmly with my gloves and snipped off the top bracts with the most tender leaves. Gathered together, the long dark-green stalks made a perfect bouquet for the wedding of a fairy tale witch.
Taming wild stinging nettles is as easy as boiling water.
TAMING Nettle’s Sting
As I prepared a large pot of boiling water, I admired the nettles’s papery toothed leaves. A short bath into the boiling water was all they needed to become tame. How quickly they subdued into limp, inoculated leaves and stems.
Here’s how to quickly rid nettles of their sting:
- Drop the unstemmed nettles into a pot of boiling water (salted if you like, but unsalted if you plan to drink the resulting nettle tea.)
- Blanch until the leaves are limp, about 2 minutes.
- Drain in a strainer set over a bowl and press out the extra liquids.
- Pull the leaves from the stem without any risk of getting stung.
- Chop the leaves for using like spinach or follow the instructions to make nettle butter.
As I plucked the leaves from the stem, I regretted composting those fibrous stalks and remembered an ethno-botany class from years before when I learned that native tribes used these fibers to make a most sturdy twine.
I did save the green-tinged water and sipped this nettle tea. I expected some bitterness but it was so mild and tasty, I drank it unsweetened. (Later I steeped it with Assam black tea and added honey to make vitamin-packed iced tea. Amazing to think it all came from what is, essentially, a weed.)
Many people compare nettles with spinach.
Sure, you can use this dark, leafy green in place of cooked spinach in any recipe–from risotto and ravioli to omelets and soup.
But it doesn’t taste like spinach, at least not to me. Earthier, milder with a rougher texture to the leaves, nettles, like all wild foods I’ve tried, have an alluring complexity and depth that cultivated foods don’t possess.
One other surprising contrast: unlike spinach, these greens did not reduce in volume dramatically when cooked.
In addition to nettle pesto for tossing with roasted asparagus, I love to make nettle butter for melting onto grilled meats and fish–especially salmon.
Once I blend the blanched nettles with butter in the food processor, I form it into logs and chill them in the refrigerator or freezer. For any grilled meal from spring through fall, I pull out a log of nettle butter, slice it into rounds and let it melt onto the cooked foods.
It’s a sauce, a flavoring and a taste of the wild that you can forage in woods and meadows. Or, like me, find invading your very own garden.
Nettle Butter Log
Making a flavored butter is one of my favorite ways to use stinging nettles. Their mild taste is great on steak or chicken and all types of grilled vegetables. You can also stir it into a risotto, make a pan sauce or spread it on a slice of bread for an every day taste of the wild.
- 1 1/2 cups blanched nettle leaves
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 small shallot
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
Combine the nettles, butter, shallot and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the ingredients are very well blended. Taste for seasoning.
To form the nettle butter into a log, lay a 12-inch long piece of plastic wrap on the counter with the long side facing you. Spoon the softened butter into a rough log shape along the center of the plastic. Fold the long edge of the plastic over the butter and use your hands to mold and press it into a tube shape about 6 inches long. Twist the ends tightly and refrigerate the log until ready to use.
Unwrap the chilled nettle butter log and slice it into rounds about 1/4-inch thick. Place them on top of cooked meat or fish or swirl them into cooked pasta, risotto, soups or stews.
Nettle butter can be frozen for up to 3 months.