I have many memories from my formative boyhood years of tromping through the woods, discovering nature, getting dirty, and hunting for anything with more than (or less than) two legs with which I could startle my poor dear mother. Occasionally, the call of the wild would lure me unsuspectingly deep into the lush green forest undergrowth only to set my skin ablaze with stinging nettles. It didn’t take much. A single swipe of a stem was enough to send me skinny dippin’ in the creek to get some relief.
If you’ve spent much time in the woods, you’ve likely seen them, and you may even be familiar with the burn that I’m talking about. Nettles are a vicious plant, breaking off little hypodermic needles into your flesh that pump you full of histamines, leukotrienes, and a whole bunch of other words I can’t pronounce, along with a good dose of serotonin just to make sure your brain is firing on all cylinders and fully aware of the ripping pain. They’re a real delight. What’s worse is, they’re everywhere (except Hawaii): North America, Europe, Asia…if you’re north of the equator, you’re likely at risk of eventually running into stinging nettles.
So here is my advice if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the middle of a stinging nettle patch: pick them and eat them. It will serve them right. Better yet, eat their young tender plants. (No, really, do NOT eat the old plants unless you want to have some uncomfortable urinary tract issues.)
There’s an interesting book called The Travels of John Heckewelder in Frontier America. It’s a compilation of journals written by Heckewelder as he traveled the western frontier of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan in the late 18th century. His primary mission was that of a Moravian evangelist to the native peoples with whom he associated himself and lived among for nearly sixty years.
John Heckewelder was familiar with nettles, but his recollections were a bit different than mine. To me, they are a nuisance; to him, they meant survival.
“We lived mostly on nettles; which grew abundantly in the bottoms, and of which we frequently made two meals a day. We also made use of some other vegetables and greens. Besides, we had brought along some tea and chocolate; which we drank as well as we could without milk or sugar” (p. 44).
And later, during one particularly season of deprivation, he complained, “The nettles had become too large and hard; and every vegetable that grew in my garden was stolen by the passing traders” (p. 65).
Ok, so it’s a well-known fact that everything tastes better with chocolate, but I’ll bet the preacher didn’t know just how nutritious stinging nettles were as well! Stinging nettles are high in Vitamins A and C. They are also high in iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. And did you know they have a very high percentage of protein? When cooked, they taste somewhat like spinach.
So now is the time to cook with nettles! Mushrooms are too hard to find any way. Gather up a basket-full and I’ll show you one delicious way of preparing them. By the way, unless you’re going to eat them raw (which I highly recommend you don’t) all those nasty injectables break down during the cooking process, so you don’t need to worry about getting stung on your lips and tongue.
Stinging Nettle Soup.
Set a pot of about 1-1/2 to 2 quarts of fresh water on your stove or over the fire and bring it to a low boil. While you’re waiting, melt a stick of butter (4 oz.) in a large skillet or spider over medium heat. Once the butter has settled down, add three medium onions, coarsely chopped. Season with a dash of pepper and some salt. Saute your onions until they are golden brown, then add about six cups of chopped nettles that have first been washed and patted dry.
Toss for about 10 minutes over your heat until your nettles look more like cooked spinach. At this point, sprinkle on about 4 Tablespoons of flour and stir it in well. Now remove your water from the fire and add to it all the ingredients in your skillet.
Finally, cut off the crust of a hearty loaf of bread and chop it up fairly well. Add this to your soup and let the whole thing simmer for about 15 minutes. That’s it.
So don your gloves and away you go!