Ask anyone in Northern New York’s Adirondack Mountains about stinging nettle, and you’ll get a story.
In my hometown haven of hiking and camping, the chances of accidentally brushing through a nettle patch while walking along an overgrown trail is more likely than not. Luckily, the itching and burning effects of nettle stings usually last only a few minutes, and the upsides to being surrounded by the edible and nutrient-rich wild plant are numerous.
Abundant in the woods, along trails, and near rivers and streams, stinging nettle (along with the similar wood nettle) is a seasonal must-have for creative cooks looking for a versatile green. Nettle harvest season begins before most cultivated crops send up fragile green shoots in our fields, and can last for months before the plants go to flower and then seed.
Be sure to prepare for your nettle-picking excursion by wearing long sleeves and pants, and by bringing along a pair of gardening gloves. Nettle patches can cover a large expanse of ground, and since you only want to pick the top 4 inches or so of plant (including the thin, fragile stems), you may need to travel through a patch to harvest your desired quantity. As soon as you wilt or dry your nettle it will lose all stinging ability and can be handled without gloves or tongs.
This mild and delicious green isn’t bitter like many other wild greens, and stands in well for spinach or arugula in soups, sauces, and pastas. Since the leaves are delicate and will break apart when stirred or blended, nettle works best in recipes where small pieces of greens are desired. You can also enjoy dried nettle as a steaming cup of tea in the cooler months to come.
Stinging nettle and wood nettle are both edible, both sting, and are quite similar in appearance. Be sure to wash nettle and allow to air dry before use, and collect leaves from areas that are unlikely to be exposed to pesticides or other contaminants. As with all foraging, consult trusted field guides and experts to ensure positive plant identification, and check with a doctor for any specific health concerns.
Creamy Nettle Dip
• 4 firmly-packed cups of fresh nettle leaves
• 1 1/4 cups sour cream
• 1 cup thick plain yogurt
• 2 tbsp fresh chives, chopped
• 1/4 tsp ground smoked paprika
• 1 tsp garlic powder or 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 tbsp lemon juice
• Salt and pepper to taste
Blanch the fresh nettle leaves. Squeeze out liquid and roughly chop. Yield should be about 1 cup of greens once blanched. Mix all ingredients in a bowl and blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Reseason to taste, adding more lemon juice if desired.
Serve with chips or fresh veggies.
Dried Nettle for Tea
Place fresh nettle leaves on dehydrator trays (use tongs or gloves to avoid stings) with no more than two layers of leaves per tray.
Set dehydrator to 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit, and check after 4 hours. Leaves should be brittle and completely dry once done.
Let sit out for 24 hours to ensure leaves are completely dry before storing in an airtight container. Should keep up to one year. Great for steeping as tea, or bring camping to rehydrate and add some greens to your dinners.
Simple Summer Pasta with Bacon and Nettle
• 3 packed cups of fresh nettle leaves, chopped (use gloves to avoid stings)
• 1/2 lb bacon, chopped
• 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
• 4 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 lb spaghetti, fettuccine, or linguine, cooked
• 2 tbsp butter + 2 additional tbsp butter (optional to add in at the end)
• Fresh herbs such as parsley or chives to garnish, chopped
Melt 2 tbsp of the butter in a large cast iron skillet or heavy pot on medium heat.
Add chopped bacon and cook, stirring constantly until the fat renders out and the bacon begins to crisp. Add in garlic and cook until fragrant and slightly browned.
Set heat to low, and add in cooked pasta, stirring until bacon is fully incorporated and mixture is heated through. Add in chopped nettle one cup at a time, stirring until the nettle has completely wilted and is evenly distributed throughout the pasta. Once wilted, the nettle will no longer sting. Stir in ½ of the parmesan cheese and ½ of the chopped herbs.
Salt and pepper to taste. Add in remaining 2 tbsp butter if desired.
Plate and top with a small amount of parmesan and fresh herbs.