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No-nonsense nettles

With proper preparation, stinging noxious weed offers super-food qualities

Top puréed stinging nettle soup with chives, pine nuts, freshly cracked pepper and a swirl of sour cream. (Adriana Janovich)
Top puréed stinging nettle soup with chives, pine nuts, freshly cracked pepper and a swirl of sour cream. (Adriana Janovich)

It seems counterintuitive to eat stinging nettles.

After all, you’re taught to not touch or even brush up against them on hiking trails lest you end up with a painful, poison-ivy-like rash. It’s the stuff of summer sleepaway-camp horror stories.

However, this noxious weed is also a glorious, green super-food.

Rich in Vitamin A, calcium and fiber, stinging nettles, or urtica dioica, are quite good for you – as long as you don’t touch them while they’re uncooked.

Cooking or steaming nettles destroys the hard-to-see hairs laden with irritating chemicals on their leaves and stems. These stingers add an element of danger in the kitchen as well as the woods. Even if you’re not harvesting the prickly plant yourself, you must take care when handling them at home.

Spokane’s Urban Eden Farms and CasaCano Farms both sell nettles pre-bagged in plastic, which makes the plant much easier to process. Touch only the bag, and drop the contents right into a pot for steaming or boiling.

The Wandering Table in Spokane’s Kendall Yards puts stinging nettles on one of its flatbread pizzas, spotlighting the rich and earthy greens, slightly reminiscent of arugula. There’s a hint of spiciness but no bitterness.

My two favorite ways to prepare nettles at home are in pesto and puréed soup.

Nettle Pesto

From Wandering Table in Spokane

2 cups young, raw stinging nettles

1 cup parsley

1 cup almonds, toasted

2 cups olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded

3 tablespoons garlic, minced

To prepare the nettles: Using tongs or gloves, measure 2 tightly packed cups of nettles. Add them to salted boiling water for 1 to 2 minutes, drain immediately and then place the greens in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Cool, strain and squeeze dry using a tea towel to remove every drop of moisture that you can.

Make the pesto: Combine all ingredients in a food processor and mix until smooth until combined, about 2 minutes.

Note: It’s fun and easy to experiment with pesto. Try walnuts or pine nuts, and arugula or basil leaves, and – for brightening – a little lemon juice.  

On the Web: Find a recipe for the Wandering Table flatbread dough at www.spokesman.com/ blogs/too-many-cooks.             

Nettle Soup

From wildblessings.com

Potatoes thicken this puréed soup with a mild nettle flavor.

2 tablespoons butter, divided

1 onion, chopped

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 pound potatoes, peeled and chopped

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1/2 pound stinging nettles

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)

In a large pot, melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Add onion and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft, about 3 minutes. Add potatoes and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, simmer and cook 15 minutes.

Add nettles and cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon butter, pepper and nutmeg.

Purée soup with an immersion blender or in a blender or food processor in batches. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve if you want a smoother broth. Stir in cream, if using. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if desired. 

Note: I added a couple of shallots and clove of garlic, and skipped the cream. Top with a swirl of sour cream or Greek yogurt and pine nuts or almond slivers and chives. Or drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil on top.

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