I was running up the great mountain of Pershing Drive, on the shoulder next to the golf course, when I felt something bite my ankles.
I bounced to the farther side of the shoulder, but the biting pain didn’t let up. I was reduced to a poor imitation of can-can dancing as I tried to pull my feet out of harm’s way as soon as they hit the ground.
The perp, I learned, was stinging nettles, which grow in lush abundance as soon as the clock ticks off the spring equinox. They are slight organisms, but deadly; their heart-shaped leaves are soft, but with sharply serrated edges, and covered with downy hairs that, when touched, inject a poisonous compound of acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin and formic acid.
The stinging nettle has a long history of use as a somewhat punishing remedy for various ailments. It is one of nine plants invoked in a 10th century pagan charm against infection. Extracts of the plant are used to treat arthritis, anemia, hay fever, kidney problems, eczema, and congestive heart failure, as well as in shampoos to control dandruff and make hair glossy.
Nettle extract is used by bodybuilders to increase testosterone—but then, what isn’t?
It is also used as a temporary pain reliever in a method called urtication, with which I hope you are all unfamiliar.
One must wonder whose great idea it was to eat these things. What forest-dwelling progenitor of our time, while making a mud poultice to ease the histamine burns on his legs, thought, “I think I’ll send the children to gather those stinging weeds and get my wife to cook them for dinner”?
Nonetheless, we must extend gratitude to this optimistic forbear of ours, who evidently found out that soaking nettles in water removes their stinging chemicals. The nettle contains 40% protein, unusually high by other green leafy standards. Its flavor is similar to spinach and is used commonly in Italian, Greek, Indian and Nepalese regional cooking. It is used in flavoring certain cheeses of Northern Europe, as well as in an aromatic syrup that, when mixed to sparkling water, is said (by Wikipedia) to be very refreshing.
The people of Dorset, in the UK, host an annual competition in which contestants eat as much of the raw plant as possible in a fixed amount of time. The Stinging Nettle Eating Championship traces its roots back to a farming dispute in 1986, which is a good reason to stay friendly with your neighbors.
R.W. Emerson, the original hippie, taught his devotees that a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. If neither this blog post, nor the father of transcendentalism, can convince you to embrace the stinging nettle, perhaps this recipe can.
Creamy, Garlicky Stinging Nettle Soup
* 3 Tablespoons butter or olive oil, I use a mix
* 2 shallots, minced
* 2 garlic cloves, minced
* 1 cup chopped baby garlic greens, scallions, or leeks
* 1/4 cup dry sherry
* 1/2 pound wild nettle tops
* 1 quart water or broth
* Salt and Pepper
* 1 cup greek yogurt, crème fraiche, sweet cream, or half and half
* 2 Tablesoons fresh parsley
* 1 handful fresh baby spinach
1. Sauté shallots, garlic, and garlic greens (or scallions or leeks) in butter or olive oil. Add sherry and nettles.
2. Add water and bring to a boil.
3. Cover and simmer until the nettles are very soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add spinach.
4. Add salt and pepper to taste, add yogurt or cream, and puree using an immersion blender.
5. Add fresh parsley and serve with more yogurt and chopped garlic greens.