Nettles: A Wild Food Star is Born

Nettles

 

image credit: Theresa Carle-Sanders

I don’t know about the rest of BC, but here in the Southern Gulf Islands, stinging nettles have achieved some serious star power. While many may label Urtica dioica a weed and painful nuisance, those in the know revere the nettle as a plentiful goldmine of great-tasting nutrition that has been used as food and medicine for thousands of years.

On Galiano, their very successful Food Program hosts an annual gathering to celebrate this early harbinger of spring. This year, on Saturday, April 2, NettleFest participants gathered to communally pick and cook for the evening community feast of nettle bread, white bean & nettle soup and nettle-red pepper polenta. Elsewhere, stinging nettles inspired all manner of creations, including cookies, jellies, vinegars, seasoning salt, crackers, biscotti, soaps, shampoos and tonics in the Artisans Market, and island poets sharpened their pencils to declare, ever so briefly, their admiration for this wonder plant in the first ever Nettle Haiku Contest.

Residents of other islands in the region may be a little more reserved when it comes to showing our appreciation for stinging nettles, but we are just as eager to spot those first tender tips emerging from the humus-rich soil. Nettles are rich in Vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium. In spring, their peak season, stinging nettle contains up to 25% protein by dry weight — very high for a leafy green vegetable. Spinach is the most often taste comparison, but that sells nettles short. In my opinion, they’re tastier than any cultivated green. Best of all, they’re free.

For those new to foraging, stinging nettles are perhaps the easiest wild food with which to start. Easy to identify and abundant across BC, especially in the Pacific Northwest where annual rainfall is high, nettles are simple to prepare and versatile beyond imagination.

Common sense dictates that one should wear gloves when harvesting nettles. As well, avoid ditches and other common areas of relief used by animals. When harvesting, clip the young tips & leaves and leave behind the larger, older leaves which can be tough and overpoweringly bitter.

Once back in the kitchen, and still donning your gloves, soak your harvest in cool water with a splash of vinegar to remove the stinging chemicals any dirt and bugs (spiders love nettles). From there, you can choose to puree them fresh in a smoothie or a batch of pesto, bake them into bread (find the recipe here), steep them for tea, brew them into beer, blanch or sauté them as a side dish or hang them in bunches to dry for use all year round.

The Alderlea Farm Stinging Nettle Festival will be held this Saturday, April 16th, from 11am – 4pm in Duncan, BC. For more information, visit www.alderleafarm.com. – by Theresa Carle-Sanders

 

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