You don’t have to go very far anywhere on Vancouver Island to find a patch of stinging nettles. But why would you want to find them? Stinging nettles hitting bare flesh does mean a nasty stinging or burning sensation that can last for hours or even days. And yet the stinging nettle is highly regarded as a food source with nutritious and medicinal properties. I brought a batch of nettle goodies without the sting to my Food Matters column on All Points West today.
I have just brushed up against one ever so lightly, and that was enough. I immediately felt the sting and burn, but luckily for me it went away quickly. Funny thing is that until I moved to Vancouver Island I had never come across them before, even though they grow almost everywhere in the world. Now I see them everywhere I go on the Island, and I even have a few on my own property and the ones I harvested for today were just down the street from me off the side of the road. I was very careful to harvest them wearing a long-sleeved jacket, jeans and heavy duty dish gloves.
Stinging nettles have become almost trendy lately, for a number of reasons…for one, they are free. Although if you live in a built-up urban area where there are no nettles I have seen them for sale at farmer’s markets. Another reason is that they are a local, wild food, and more people are getting into foraging for wild foods, we talked about morel mushrooms last week, for example. And the last reason is that there are also regarded as a natural ingredient with positive medicinal properties.
Let’s just start with what is contained in the plant from a vitamin and mineral standpoint. Nettles are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. They are also thought to increase levels of serotonin in the body, act as an anti-inflammatory for people suffering from arthritis, and they have even been recommended as a cure for bedwetting.
The secret in using them safely is all in deactivating the hairs that line the stems of the plant. They are the culprits that release the chemicals that cause the sting. You can eat raw stinging nettle if you fold the leaves UP over the stems and hairs, the trick is to never rub the hairs against the direction they go. OR, you can simply soak the nettles in cold water, or blanch them, and chop them all up in the food processor. All of these methods deactivate the sting, and then you can use them in delicious recipes.
I got of lot of ideas from Katy Ehrlic at Alderlea Farm in Glenora. Katy and her husband John are holding their third annual Stinging Nettle Festival at the farm this Sunday. So, along with cooking demonstrations and a nettle identification walking tour, you can purchase lots of foods made using stinging nettle. True Grain Bakery is providing nettle bread, and Katy is making a nettle mulligatawny soup, a nettle stew using their farm-raised beef and potatoes, there it going to be a nettle quiche, nettlekopita (like spanakopita) and Farmer John will be tending the wood-fired oven and producing pizzas with stinging nettle pesto. Today I brought Jo-Ann some buttery buns I made cinnamon roll-style with a nice layer of nettle pesto and a topping of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, some stinging nettle and mint tea from the TeaFarm in North Cowichan and then a soup I made from a Chef Brock Windsor recipe in the new ‘On the Flavour Trail’ cookbook from the Island Chefs’ Collaborative.
John Ehrlich told me about how stinging nettles are also an important part of biodynamic farming. They make an excellent compost activator. So he buries the nettles for a year, then adds the resulting black hummus into his compost and it helps the soil transmit the proper nutrients to his vegetables. He says you can also make a nettle tea you steep for three days you can then use as an insecticide, especially against aphids…ferment it for ten days and it becomes a great tonic for your plants. But John also warns that you can overharvest nettle, so be sure to leave a large patch untouched if you want it to come back next year. Only harvest the top two sets of leaves to get the most tender nettles. Below that that stems get kind of stringy…and in some countries they even use them to make rope and textiles!
If you are interested in making the buns I made today, prepare your favourite recipe for bread dough. Here is one recipe for nettle pesto. After the first rise of the bread, I rolled out the dough into a flat rectangle. Then brushed the surface with olive oil, and spread a generous layer of pesto (you’ll need close to a cup) evenly over the surface of the oiled dough. Roll it up as evenly as possible and cut into 8 or 9 even rolls. Put them together in a baking pan, brush the tops with olive oil and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and let them rise a second time. Put into a 400 degree F preheated oven and bake for about 20 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. Cool on a rack…if you can stop yourself from eating too many of them as soon as they come out of the oven!
One more event this weekend, this one on Friday night at the Oceanfront Grand Hotel in Cowichan Bay. I’ll be emceeing a neat event called ‘Cheddar and Blues’. Patty Abbott from Hilary’s Cheese has brought in several cloth-bound cheeses from the renowned Neal’s Yard Dairy in England. We’re talking fine cheddars and Stiltons here, which are blue…cheddar and blues, get it? And lovely jazz from the Wayne Kozak Trio. Tickets $35 available at either of the Hilary’s Cheese locations in Cowichan Bay or on Fort Street in Victoria. Hope to see you there!