By Grace Avila
The prickly plant with a sweet nature
My love affair with stinging nettles began in a cold room in an old building in Berkeley, California. I was training to be a nutritionist back then, and we spent our Saturdays listening to our teacher lecture on all kinds of fascinating topics. To keep warm, we sipped a variety of teas throughout the day. Whenever we had nettle tea, I would wake up the next morning so energized that I felt I could take on the world. I wanted to know more about this mysterious plant.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a beautiful emerald green herb that’s been used medicinally since at least medieval times. High in iron, calcium, potassium, and the vitamins A, K, and C, their anti-inflammatory properties make nettles a godsend for people suffering from joint pains, eczema, gout, and arthritis. Plus, they just taste so good! Of course, first you have to navigate the plant’s very prickly and painful exterior to get to its wild superfood. Nettles grow anywhere swampy, and they’re also available in most health food stores and farmers’ markets. If you can’t find them, ask the produce manager at your favorite store to special order you a pound of organic nettles.
With gloved hands and a pair of tongs, wash a pound of nettles (stems and all) under cold water to remove any dirt, and then place them in a large pot and cover with 2 gallons of water. Gently simmer uncovered for about 2 hours on low heat, until the water has evaporated to about 1 gallon. Allow the tonic to cool, pull the nettles out, and strain the tea. Store in glass bottles at room temperature in a cool dark place in your kitchen. Drink within four or five days or less.
In a large pot, blanch a pound of nettles in boiling water for 2 minutes to take the sting out. Remove the nettles and set aside. Discard the water. Warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the same pot over medium heat and sauté a small, diced onion for about 5 minutes. Add 5 cups of veggie broth, 2 teaspoons of salt, a medium potato (peeled and chopped), and the blanched nettles. Allow the soup to simmer for about an hour or until everything is very soft. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the soup to cool for about 20 minutes. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Serve with a little crème fraîche or Parmesan cheese.
Nettles and Rice
In a large skillet, warm 3 tablespoons of olive oil and cook one medium yellow onion, chopped, for about 5 minutes. Add a large tomato, chopped, and about a cup of blanched nettle leaves (see Nettle Soup recipe) to skillet and cook an additional 5 minutes. Add 1½ cups of long-grain rice and then 2½ cups of vegetable stock. Season with salt and a pinch of saffron. Simmer covered over medium heat until the rice is soft and has absorbed the liquid
Handle with Care
1. Always wear heavy gloves. My favorites: True Blues Ultimate Household Gloves (amazon.com).
2. To remove leaves, use a pair of kitchen or garden scissors (while wearing gloves).
3. Use tongs to transport nettles from counter to stove, but wear gloves as well.
4. Blanching nettles in boiling water for 2 minutes takes out the sting and makes them easier to handle.
The generic Latin name for nettles, uro, means “I burn,” according to Steve Brill, aka Wildman.