When the pandemic hit in 2019, I was working at a local frozen grocery store that catered to specific diets. I’d applied to this company to teach cooking classes but the classes were on hiatus for the unforeseeable future as so many things were then, so I sold frozen dietary meals. My title was Nutritional Associate, and I’ll admit that my ego was somewhat embittered by this turn of events after moving two states north to pursue a career in cooking.
Secretly, however, the fledgling stages of Cooking With Lemons was blossoming. I’d research plants to forage, bring home unused flour and eggs from the cooking class store room for a small fee when grocery shelves were empty from panic-buying and supply-chain issues. I was introduced to all manner of new meal ideas and local farmer’s market goods from the variety of farms in the Greater Seattle and Sammamish River Valley areas. My community made creative food-sourcing relatively easy with a little friendliness and the right books.
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Everyone who worked there was passionate about nutrition in one way or another. One woman, a bright, young model from Virginia, liked mushroom coffee, marijuana, her cat, and the little nettle plant she purchased from a market stand.
I’ll admit to finding the stinging nettle to be somewhat unfriendly at first–a little like the winter weather my first season here. Like many who may discover their hollow needles coated in formic acid by accidentally wandering into a patch, I naively regarded the weed with distaste and distrust on first instinct.
But I was new to the Pacific Northwest and felt the need to familiarize with the plants and animals here before wandering around in the woods. Then I got a Groupon for an herbalism master class through the Centre For Excellence. Soon I was learning about plants hoping to one day forage my own food with confidence.
Foraging is a habit as old as we are and Stinging Nettles, or Urtica dioica, stand to remind of this ancient bond between plant and homo sapiens via its fame and various uses throughout history, vitamin rich edible bits, and a claim to one of the highest protein contents among edible greens. They are capable of offering our entire daily intake of vitamin A, and add generous daily values of iron, fatty acids, iron, protein, minerals, terpenoids, carotenoids, and fiber (reference sources).
They have been used as fiber for clothes dating as far back as three thousand years, were used for “keeping warm” by the Romans, and are even referenced a handful of times in the Bible. Stinging Nettle oil is purported to stimulate hair growth and may help those suffering from alopecia. Salves applied topically can tend to wounds and relieve symptoms of arthritis and seasonal allergies, while my family can personally say the tops are nice added to some sauce, or cooked in butter and garlic, and served over noodles (see below).
The roots, seeds, stems, and leaves are used medicinally by herbalists to treat a variety of ailments including arthritis, IBS, pancreatitis & digestive difficulties, and their nutritional value, fiber, & low-calorie content is ideal for vegetarians and diabetic diets. There’s currently research around using Nettles in bread as a lower calorie option for diabetic diets. It’s also known to aid in prostate health.
This is the kind of plant Aragorn might chew up and put in Frodo’s sword wound—it’s that green healing thing we see in mythical stories that revives and restores the hero beyond previous capacity–or so my nerd-self begins to think. My previous apprehension about this prickly plant vanished after a little bit of reading. It is funny how knowledge can dissolve fear.
On that note, please note, I’m not a doctor and can not be held liable for the use of information provided here. Always make sure to check with your doctor before introducing a new plant medicinally or otherwise. Stinging Nettle extract can interact with certain medications.
So where do we find this happy power green and how is it prepared?
Nettles like moist, riparian areas, disturbed ground near rivers, bogs, creek beds and roadsides. You’re likely to find it on accident if you like to wander around outside, as it’s little sting can be a bit painful in a rashy, annoying way. I like to think of it as reassuring. If it’s got hairs, it’s not poison hemlock. While the two don’t really get confused, hemlock and nettles grow on similar turf, so it’s always good to keep a wary eye.
While it grows everywhere and is in no danger of lack of abundance, seeing dazzling roadside patches of happy green nettles can be frustrating because as tempting as these morsels are, they absorb heavy metals, so roadside collection is a no-go, but at least it’s easy to tell when to get out there. Spring is best for it, April or May, since the new growth and nettle tops are the most palatable.
If you can’t find it wild, Stinging Nettle can be purchased pretty easily and relatively cheaply. I like it for tea, hair oil (promotes shine and growth), pesto, spinach replacement, powders, and the stems can even be put to use in the making of textiles if you feel so daring. It’s a great pandemic-era pantry item.
When you pull up a nettle, you can take everything along with the root or just the nettle tops for eating, but if I’m sourcing my own food, I prefer to use the whole plant or animal. Sustainability and self-sufficiency is a lifestyle that requires time but fosters ultimate appreciation for resources and life as a whole. All parts of the stinging nettle are usable.
I like to wash everything in a cambro first and and rinse until water runs clear. Keep the silt by filtering fine stuff through pillow case if you’re into clay-making; I just like to keep dirt and rocks out of the garbage disposal.
Then I parcel it out. Leaves can be plucked from the stem, while new growth and tops can be plucked and put aside (see plastic container pictured) for cooking. Roots and rhizomes have an outer layer that can be scrubbed with a gloved hand under running water until they appear clean and yellowish. Any badly bruised or bug-damaged leaves should be discarded.
Bugs can be a good sign, seeing as their presence may mean that no spraying has been done in the area. Be very careful when you collect to do so in a place where no spraying has occurred. Urtica dioica is a weed in the “noxious” category.
The stems and leaves can be used for a tincture in alcohol or vinegar, a salve in beeswax or coconut oil, or the leaves can be dried and crushed for tea. The roots will be dried and then stored in an airtight container in oil in a dark place for a month. Then hello luscious locks! While tops are perfect for blanching, chopping, and cooking.
Flowers and seeds are usable in herbal applications as well, but one shouldn’t eat Stinging Nettles after they have flowered, as doing so may have unwarranted affects on hormones (another reason for early-season gathering).
Make sure to blanch them if cooking or dry them as these treatments neutralize the sting. It’s a good idea to taste-test first and wait twenty minutes if you’ve never had nettles before, since some people can be more sensitive than others to their properties. My husband has pretty sensitive skin and says they make his throat feel a bit scratchy while I don’t mind handling them with my bare hands on occasion. Everyone’s tolerance is different.
We enjoyed them prepared in two different versions since I was suffering the pains of a peptic ulcer at the time. My husband’s is the red sauce version while mine is the plain noodles, greens, and garlic. Our son is under a year old, so he cannot have Stinging Nettles, which I read are not recommended for children under twelve, but I’m less savvy on this research. Perhaps we can cover that more in the podcast. Nettles have their own distinct flavor and don’t require much more than this simple treatment after blanching.
We’ll post more on Nettle uses as the various oils, teas, and salves, are prepared. More recipes to come. For now, please enjoy Nettles & Noodles. If you enjoyed this post, please leave comments or follow us on social media @CookingWLemons.
By Courtney DuPuy
Copywrite Cooking With Lemons 2022
El Haouari, Mohammed, and Juan A. Rosado. “Phytochemical, Anti-Diabetic and Cardiovascular Properties of Urtica Dioica L. (Urticaceae): A Review.” Mini-Reviews in Medicinal Chemistry, vol. 19, no. 1, 2018, pp. 63–71., https://doi.org/10.2174/1389557518666180924121528.
Joshi, Bhuwan Chandra, et al. “Pharmacognostical Review of Urtica Dioica L.” International Journal of Green Pharmacy (IJGP), Clarivate Analytics Web of Science, 2014, http://www.greenpharmacy.info/index.php/ijgp/article/view/414.
Kregiel, Dorota, Ewelina Pawlikowska, and Hubert Antolak. 2018. “Urtica spp.: Ordinary Plants with Extraordinary Properties” Molecules 23, no. 7: 1664. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23071664.
Rafajlovska, Vesna, et al. “Determination of Protein and Mineral Contents in Stinging Nettle.” Determination of Protein and Mineral Contents in Stinging Nettle | QUALITY OF LIFE (BANJA LUKA) – APEIRON, 2013, https://doisrpska.nub.rs/index.php/qualitiyoflife/article/view/717.