Nettles are disliked by gardeners and hikers, but appreciated in cuisines throughout the Northern hemisphere as a source of cheap, nutritious fare. Many people associate the green with foods eaten during famines and economic downturns, but its image is on the rise. Anne Gillespie Lewis, food writer and author of The Ingebretsen’s Saga, points out that though people in many countries have used nettles for nourishing food when money for other things was scarce, nettle soup was served to the Nobel winners at their gala dinner in December is Sweden a few years ago. “It’s fit for kings, peasants and scientists!” she says.
Four years ago, Jennie Bergstrom of Lino Lakes discovered a crop of nettles in her yard. She decided to learn about the plant she knew was important to her ancestor’s Nordic diet while “getting a little revenge” on the stinging plant. She learned that since the Viking age, ancestral people in northern hemispheres joyously greeted nettles, the first greens to appear after long winters of eating dried, salted, and smoked foods. Nettles were eagerly gathered as a much-needed addition to people’s diet. Nettles abound in calcium, iron, vitamins A, C, and K, and are surprisingly high in protein.
Bergstrom took this tradition and now invites friends to come to her spacious yard where they gather nettle leaves. The leaves are made into soup often over a campfire for full effect. Each individual bowl is garnished with half of a hard-boiled egg, sliced length-wise. The egg is more than just decorative; the egg complements the nettles in a way the total flavor is more than a sum of its parts. It is also a powerful evocation of spring.
Nordic Roots Educator Kari Tauring explains, “The older breeds of chicken don’t lay eggs in winter. It isn’t until the spring equinox that they start again. To put in egg in a soup made with fresh greens was to celebrate that a corner had been turned, that the long darkness was over.” Though fresh food isn’t a novelty for Bergstrom’s guests, the symbolism is important. Sonja Carlson, a regular at the nettle soup gatherings says, “It connects me to the Swedish side of my family. You could call it ‘food for the northern European soul’.”
The Native People of North America long recognized the value of the nettle. Hope Flanagan is an Ojibwe language teacher at Wicoie Nandagikendan Urban Immersion Preschool in Minneapolis. She teaches children to recognize and use plants to create a healthful diet, both in her work at the preschool and as a volunteer at Dream of Wild Health, a Native owned and operated organic farm in Hugo, Minnesota. “Every plant has its gift, whether it is food, medicine, or utility. Nettles are free nutrition. Why do we try to get rid of them? I teach people to look at nettles’ assets.”
The first part of using the nettles’ assets is gathering the leaves safely. Arm yourself with gardening gloves, a sack to hold the leaves, scissors, and a long-sleeved shirt. Snip off the tender top part of the plant, and pluck any larger, but still tender, leaves from the stalk. Most of the stinging hairs are on the stalk, so avoid handling that part of the plant. If your skin does become irritated from handling nettles, Flanagan suggest looking for some jewelweed and rubbing its leaf on the spot that itches. “The remedy grows next to the challenge,” she says, meaning that you can usually find jewelweed growing next to nettles.
Nettles can be substituted for spinach in almost any recipe. They have an earthier flavor, so it is advisable to taste and adjust seasonings. The proportions of leaf to cooked are the same as spinach, too: a pound of nettle leaves, 10-12 cups, makes one cup of cooked nettles.
Once at home, a quick way to prepare nettles for cooking is to fill the sink or a large bowl with warm water and soak the nettles for ten minutes. Remove the nettles with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl, now ready to be cooked. This rinsing removes the irritating formic acid, so dispose of the water. Cooks who take the extra step of blanching – boiling the nettles in salted water, then shocking them in an ice bath – are rewarded with a vibrant, jewel green that is food-magazine worthy, especially when making nässelsoppa, Swedish nettle soup.
Cooking truly does remove all of the sting, though sometimes that’s a tough sell to skeptics. When Hope Flanagan teaches children to cook with nettles, “the proof is in the broth.” Once one child accepts the challenge of eating some soup, his or her surprised look and “oh wow” response is enough for the other children to dive in.
Hope also has her contemporary uses of nettles. She uses them dried and crumbled in rubs for poultry and game. “You can dry nettles as you would any herb,” she says, “including in the microwave…if you pay attention.”
Increasingly people are recognizing the nettle as the food superstar that it is: it’s cheap, it has a wealth of nutrients, including protein and calcium, and it’s versatile. Gardeners can now purchase nettles at the Friends School Plant Sale. Henry Fieldseth, plant buyer for the Sale, says, “There is a growing interest in permaculture and native food plants.” Nettles fit that description, and as a perennials, they are environmentally better than annual food crops.
Fieldseth wanted to sell nettles and he found a local supplier, Will Heal Farm in Cedar, Minnesota. The Friends sell enough seedlings to justify stocking the plant, though it is not a best-seller. “We sell hundreds of flats of basil and maybe 40 to 50 nettle plants total,” Fieldseth says. However, appreciation for the hardy perennial grows. One day, kale might not be the only celebrity green.
– Carstens Smith