Nettles are what happens when mint joins the Mafia. Sprouting tall and gangly in fertile spring forests (or, all too often, in backyards), their ragged-edged leaves sport a bed of fine hairs that can cause paresthesia on contact—a numb, tingly sensation that smarts pretty good for exactly seven minutes, if lore is to be believed. It’s not a feeling I’d ever like to experience on my tongue. After they’ve been disarmed by a little boiling water, however, nettles are nothing short of delicious.
“Usually I say they taste like a minty spinach,” says wild plant wrangler Jeremy Faber, of Foraged and Found Edibles. During the spring seasons, he gathers up to 80 pounds of Urtica dioica daily. Despite wearing protective clothing, Faber’s fingertips turn black by the end of the year from constant exposure. Which is why, being generally opposed to both pain and skin discoloration, I simply buy nettles at the farmers market.
Once tamed, nettles have much better manners. Heat is the easiest way to neutralize the bouquet of irritants the leaves carry, which means a quick simmer renders them completely harmless. (Please don’t try to wash them first. You’ll hurt yourself, and it’s unnecessary. Remember: Boiling water is really, really clean.)
I use nettles like spinach—chopped and stirred into soups, whirled into pestos, stuffed into a chicken breast, or folded into pasta fillings. Full of iron, calcium, and vitamin K, they pack a similar nutritional punch, but have a more herbal flavor.
So order that nettle pasta dish, or make some yourself. There will be no attack on your soft palate, just gentle, herbaceous flavor, and the unique satisfaction of having conquered a wild thing.
Look for nettles through May at Foraged and Found Edibles stands at farmers markets around Seattle.