By Valerie Yoder:
It’s spring! For my family, that means more days at the playground, long walks through the woods, and the beginning of another foraging season.
Harvesting wild edibles is a great excuse to spend time outdoors in early spring, not to mention a satisfying way to amp up your daily intake of vitamins and minerals. And the best part? Wild edibles are low-maintenance and totally free! Nature does the hard work of fertilizing and cultivating – all you have to do is pick them and enjoy.
In the Pacific Northwest, we are fortunate to have access to a plethora of wild edibles including flavorful mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, dandelion, Oregon grapes, rose-hips, and thimbleberries. Douglas fir tips can even be used to infuse vodka. But of the many wild edibles in our region, nettles are my favorite.
Nettles are delicious, easy to cook with, and jam-packed with iron, calcium, zinc, potassium, selenium, and vitamins A, B, and K. Considered to have diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties, they have been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of health concerns including arthritis, anemia, edema, hemorrhaging, hair loss, PMS, sluggish digestion, and as a kidney tonic.
In many regions of the country, nettles can be found growing in low-lying moist areas, in woodland clearings, in ditches, and on mountain slopes. Chances are, you might even have some growing in your back yard. But watch out: their leaves are covered in tiny stinging hairs that burn your skin. For this reason, it is important to wear gloves while collecting and handling them. If you take your kids to harvest with you, be sure they are wearing long pants, long sleeves, and gloves. When I’m harvesting nettles with my (almost) two-year-old, I cover his hands with socks or mittens and also include a backpack. And — no need to worry — cooking the leaves neutralizes the sting.
Tender, young leaves are the best for harvesting. If you find a healthy patch of young nettles and return to clip the new growth every few days, you can extend the season. A good time to search them out in the Pacific Northwest is toward the end of March.
The taste of nettles is herby, slightly resembling basil. They are perfect to spice up a dish and even work well as a main ingredient.
Unless a recipe calls for fresh leaves, you will want to blanch them before use: Boil in salted boiling water for one to two minutes. Strain, then submerge in ice water. Remove and squeeze out excess water. Chop and reserve for use in your recipe.
Once you do that, there are endless culinary uses for nettles. To name a few:
2. This Nettle Ravioli with Brown Butter Shallot Sauce looks amazing:
3. Nettle Pizza: Throw some blanched nettle leaves, ricotta, whole garlic cloves, and homemade sauce on pizza crust, then toss the pie in the oven. Yummy!
4. Nettle Tisane (tea): Bring one quart of water to a boil. Pour over one cup (one oz.) fresh leaves and infuse overnight. Extra tea can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days. Drink a few cups daily for best results. One cup of this tea is said to have 500 mg of calcium!
5. Pickled Nettles: According to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, fresh nettle leaves can be pickled in a mixture of one part raw apple cider vinegar and one part high quality olive oil and allowed to infuse on your counter for weeks to months. This preserves them for use during winter.
6. Nettle Soup: A great nettle soup recipe can be found here.
Use caution when foraging for wild edibles. Many edible plants have poisonous look-alikes. Field guides and magnifying glasses are useful for making sure you have the right plant. However, I recommend tagging along with someone who has experience foraging until you feel comfortable identifying plants on your own. Do not ingest any wild plant until you are one hundred percent sure it is safe for consumption.
Find a local foraging class. If you live in the Seattle area, consider attending Chef Becky Selengut and Ecologist Jet Smith’s all day nettle-seeking adventure or Langdon Cook’s nettle hunting walk on Vashon Island, March 28th.
And, as always, be sure to harvest sustainably. Leave enough of the crop to ensure its survival into the following seasons.
Useful Foraging Books:
Valerie Yoder is a writer, blogger, green-minded nature lover, wanna-be baker, and student of Medicinal Botany at Evergreen State College. She loves and lives with her partner, Steven, and their (almost) two-year-old, cute-as-a-button, live wire, Townes Wilder, in Olympia, Washington. She has a new blog in the works, but in the meantime you can visit her personal blog here: link to www.hereweareinthegreatnw.blogspot.com.