Stinging nettles may not sound like a delicious ingredient, but if you carefully harvest these wild plants in the early spring, you will be rewarded with a healthy and tasty treat!
By CINDA CHAVICH
If you’re like most woodland walkers, you know it’s wise to steer clear of stinging nettles.
By midsummer these prodigious perennials can tower more than five feet tall and their stinging hairs can be quite problematic for hikers. But in early spring, young, tender nettles offer a forager’s feast.
Nettles are some of the first plants to push up through the leaf litter of the forest floor in March and April. The wet regions of Vancouver Island (and the neighboring Gulf Islands) are prime nettle territory, and you will find them along ravines and roadsides, often in areas where the soil has been disturbed.
Nettles are not only very tasty, they are medicinal marvels, used in folk medicine to treat hay fever allergies, arthritis, and eczema. Rich in Vitamin C, calcium and other nutrients, nettles are even a good source of protein. So it’s not surprising they are the darling of locally-minded island chefs.
In fact, nettles are so prized in these parts that they are celebrated with an annual four-day Nettle Festival on Galiano Island (this year, April 4-7) with nettle cooking classes, foraging walks and even a nettle potluck dinner, with an award for the most creative and delicious dish.
Reed Osler is the Education Coordinator for the Galiano Conservancy Association, and a wealth of knowledge about nettles, and I met her among the towering old growth trees to learn more.
The CRD offers guided walks through many regional parks and, along the Elsie King interpretive trail, Olser points out these common plants, with their square, hairy stems and sharply serrated leaves. Always wear gloves to harvest nettles, snapping off the tips and the first leaves, or trimming tops with scissors, she says. Leave older plants behind – they will make you sick – so only forage the new growth in spring.
Back in the park’s cosy nature centre, we learn that the nettle’s stinging hairs are rendered safe to consume by drying or steaming. Because the hairs are on the underside of the leaves, you can also roll a leaf up like a burrito, tucking the hairs inside, and chew it up.
“As long as all of the hairs are folded inside you can eat nettles raw – their own juices will neutralize the sting,” says Osler, bravely popping a square packet into her mouth.
Blanching is the preferred way to neutralize the sting of nettles and render them safe for your recipes.
Wear gloves or use tongs to handle fresh nettles. Rinse under cold running water. Plunge into boiling water for a minute, then into ice water, and squeeze dry. Use blanched nettles in savoury fillings for pastries, soups or sauces, anywhere you’d use spinach. You can also freeze blanched nettles for later use.
To make tea, steep dried nettles in hot (not boiling) water– infusing for several hours unlocks more nutrients.
After a foraging trip near his Deerholme Farm outside Duncan, chef Bill Jones serves up stinging nettle pesto, rich miso and nettle soup, and Nettle Gomae, barely blanched and chilled stinging nettle tops, dressed in soy sauce, sesame oil and sweet mirin and sprinkled with white sesame seeds.
At the House of Boateng in Langford, chef Castro Boateng blends nettles into the green hollandaise drizzled over his Hippy Benny. And you’ll find nettle-flecked Gouda from Smits & Co. Farmhouse Cheese in Chilliwack or artisan goat milk Jack with Nettles from Milner Valley Cheese in Langley. Various local shops sell nettle teas and herbal products, too.
Foraging for nettles in CRD parks is not allowed so you’ll need to confine your nettle hunting to private or Crown land (always ask for permission).
If you’re accidentally stung by nettles – their tiny hairs actually poke into the skin to deliver their venom - you may feel itchy pain for hours or days. Some recommend dock leaves, antihistamine creams or calamine to calm the sting, but you might just need to tough it out.
Or get even - with a little nettle pesto for your pasta!