This past Saturday, an intrepid half dozen of us set out on a quest for NE Seattle's feral nettle. The class was organized through Sustainable NE Seattle with resources from Meadowbrook Community Center, the Sustainable NE Seattle Community Kitchen, and the NE Seattle Tool Library. We met at Cedar Park School, on NE 135th St. and after a few comments about harvesting in public areas (be aware of people, give them room to pass, try to share with them the value of what we're doing, and try to get them involved, all without preventing them from enjoying their day), we set out for our first stand of nettles.
On our way there and as we harvested, we discussed how to recognize nettles, their sting and how to protect yourself from it, and how their usefulness makes it worthwhile to harvest them despite the sting.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are temperate zone plants, and are found in that zone throughout much of the globe. They like disturbed areas, open woodland, and a fairly moist location. Nettles are very similar to the mint family in how they look and how they grow. They grow in spreading clumps, as spikes of up to seven feet or more in height with a stem that is hollow and square in cross-section. Their leaves are in opposing pairs and have deeply-notched edges, and the plant's stems and leaves can have a purplish blush. They even spread by stolons (runners) like mint does.
Unlike mint though, nettles don't have the classic minty scent. Instead, they have little hollow stingers on stems and leaves that deliver a light dose of formic acid (the same chemical in the sting of bees and ants and many other insects). Some people are more sensitive than others, but even folks on the less sensitive end find them unpleasant. Fortunately, these stingers aren't very sturdy. I always try to minimize bare skin when I'm harvesting, but I almost always get at least a mild sting anyway, where a sleeve pulls back or some other wardrobe malfunction occurs. Happily for those of us interested in gathering and consuming nettles, the stingers are easily destroyed by several methods. The ones I know are breaking, heating, and drying.
The question arises as to what makes this plant worth risking being stung for. Nettles are useful in many ways, including as habitat for insects—the Red Admiral butterfly often lays its eggs on the nettle—as a source of fiber if harvested in the fall, as dynamic accumulators, and as food for humans and other animals larger than a butterfly (as I certainly am).
The term “dynamic accumulator” comes from permaculture, and means “plants that gather certain micronutrients, macronutrients, or minerals from the soil through their roots, as opposed to from the air, and store them in their leaves.” The benefit here, is that with deciduous plants like nettles, which die back to the ground each winter, when the leaves where those nutrients are collected are consumed by an animal or when they die and rot in place, those collected nutrients become available on the surface. In this way, nettles and other dynamic accumulators act to churn (very, very slowly) nutrients up from below the surface of the soil to the surface. And nettles aren't just your day-to-day dynamic accumulator either. They are considered by many to be second only to comfrey, which is accorded almost legendary status in the field of permaculture.
For humans and other animals, this assertive accumulation of sub-surface nutrients means that nettles offer a wide variety of beneficial compounds, including Vitamins A, B, C, K, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium, and trace nutrients including selenium, sulfur, zinc, chromium, and boron. All these nutrients also mean that stinging nettles have quite a presence in traditional medicines in many cultures. I don't have any medical credentials at all, so I won't say much about it, but if you're curious, a quick search of the web or a book on traditional medicines or herbalism should turn up a laundry list of ailments and conditions addressed by nettles.
The same accumulation that makes nettles useful in the human diet also makes them valuable for use in the garden. They are great sources of nitrogen in the compost heap, and will heat it up quickly. They may also be used in making a foliar feed for your plants that will deliver those accumulated nutrients directly to your garden.
By the time we had covered this rather long list of facts, or as much of it as I could come up with off the top of my head that afternoon, we had worked our way down the first slope (don't ask me where my favorite patches are. I've already said too much.), gathering a bucket full of plants, though looking back, you could hardly see where we had been. For this outing, we were exploring a rather broad approach to using nettles, so we were taking the plants at soil level. The reason for this is that the three things we were harvesting for—foliar feed, tea, and food—can all be made with different parts of the plant.
The foliar feed can be made with any part of the plant, tea is made from any leaves, and for food, the best source is the top six-to-eight inches of the plant. Because of this, we were able to take the whole plant (leaving the roots, which will regrow), then snip off the tops for food, trim the remaining leaves to dry for tea, and leave the stalks for the foliar feed.
Working our way downhill, we were selective in our approach. Because of nettles' value as wildlife habitat, we were careful to take no more than a third or so of any patch, passing by smaller patches entirely. As part of how we decided which plants to leave and which to take, we looked for the feathery flowers that spring up from the joint between the main stem and the leaves, then curve downward. Once a plant begins flowering, its value as a food source is diminished, because it begins to develop silica crystals that make the leaves gritty and unpleasant to eat.
One of the cool things about foraging, is a lot of times we cross paths with our fellow foragers, either directly or indirectly, as we did on Saturday. As we worked our way through the patches, we found evidence in the form of topped nettles that someone else in the neighborhood was also taking advantage of the area's natural bounty. In addition to forming a connection with that unknown forager, this also gave us a chance to see how a topped nettle will send up two side shoots from the first remaining pair of leaves to continue growth upward. A good thing to remember if you're looking to maximize yield from a limited patch.
We ended our harvest all the way at the bottom of the slope, along the Burke-Gilman Trail. For those of you who are wondering, yes, Seattle Parks does have regulations against picking plants along the trail. With this in mind, I wrote to the Department asking about the possibility of holding the class, and here is the response I received.
Parks has rules against foraging for food and/or collecting of plants. We are looking at policy changes as more people look to local foods. That said we have no real issues with blackberry picking. I would say nettles would not be something we really need to protect, although commercial level harvesting would not be allowed. Anything beyond that, say ferns, fiddletops, flowers, things that we need to protect and will disappear if picked, we would not want harvested.
I wrote back to confirm that this wouldn't be a commercial venture, that this was aimed only at nettles, and that we would be responsible in our harvesting. I look forward to hearing more about upcoming changes to the regulations, but until they occur, I'll certainly be limiting my foraging along the Trail.
The promise of responsible harvesting was easy to keep, because there, along the trail, is the mother lode of nettles. We harvested two more buckets-full of nettles, avoiding the ones that had already set flowers, hardly making a noticeable dent in the bounty.
Illustration 1: Gathering Nettles along the Burke-Gilman. Photo by Cara B.
With our buckets and bags, we hiked back up the hill, threw the nettles into our cars, and headed out to the Meadowbrook Community Center, where we had reserved the kitchen for the afternoon.
Once at the kitchen, where we were joined by two more nettlers who hadn't been able to make it to the earlier portion of the day. Chris and Cara, two of our gatherers, went straight to work trimming and washing the harvest (thanks guys! We owe you!), while the rest of us got to work on our dishes. Generally speaking, nettles have a flavor much like spinach, though I prefer nettles, which I find to be richer. They are also similar in texture, once cooked. I would recommend against using nettles in salad though, unless you like to live dangerously. On the menu on Saturday: Nettle pizza (pizza al ortica), nettle spanikopita (tsouknidopita), and a cheese dip made with nettle pesto (pesto d'ortica). The advantage of this menu is that we had the opportunity (including the tea leaves our heroes were separating out for us) to see all three ways I mentioned for eliminating the sting put to use, and the two dishes that involved cooking used different types (wet for the tsouknidopita and dry for the pizza al ortica).
Illustration 2: Hard at work. Photo by Cara B.
TSOUKNIDOPITA (blanching the stingers away)
This was my favorite of the recipes from Saturday. For any spanikopita-style dish, the process is simple: roughly equal parts feta cheese and your other main ingredient (nettles, in this case), beaten egg, and stuff to make it taste good form the filling. Then you just wrap it in phyllo dough and bake. Approximate quantities are below.
Melt butter over low heat, preheat oven to 375º, lightly butter a baking pan
3 oz ( by weight), Nettles, blanched and chopped
3 oz Feta cheese, crumbled
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 egg, beaten
a pinch of salt
To blanch the nettles, bring a pot of water to a boil, then take your nettles (carefully; we used tongs) and dip them quickly in. Swirl them in the boiling water briefly, then pull them out to a bowl full of ice water to arrest the cooking process (save the cooking liquid). You only want to wilt the leaves, which is enough to destroy the stings. Your nettles should still be a beautiful green. Once they're cool, pop them into a strainer to drain extra liquid, then chop coarsely. Mix them together with the rest of the ingredients and set aside while you prepare the pastry.
When you're working with phyllo dough, you want to work quickly and keep the dough moist. A good approach is to keep a moist towel on hand and cover the unused sheets while working with one sheet at a time. We were using a quick and dirty technique that works great. You can get as fancy as you want with phyllo, but this way is easy and fast. Take a single sheet of dough, lay it out on your work surface, brush it with the melted butter, and fold it over on itself lengthwise, to make a rectangle that's roughly 6” by 18”. Place about three-to-four tablespoons of your filling near one end of the rectangle, and begin folding it like a flag. One of the corners near the filling comes up and over the filling, making a triangle, that you then fold up toward the far end, then across at an angle, then up, and so on until you finish the strip. Any excess can simply be tucked under your triangular packet. Place this on the buttered pan and repeat until your filling is finished. Run the pan into the oven. When the packets begin to brown, flip them over and return to the oven for another five minutes or so. Try to allow them to cool a little before scarfing them all up.
PESTO D'ORTICA CHEESE DIP (crushing the stingers away)
For folks who appreciate the benefits that raw foods add to their diet, this recipe is a winner. Plus, it's so easy and delicious that there's no reason not to do it. Really. Go get some nettles. I'll wait. You start this recipe by making a pesto in the food processor (or blender or mortar and pestle, pick your favorite approach), then mixing it into chevre or any soft cheese, then dipping things into it and sticking them in your mouth. I recommend chewing as well, but it's not my place to judge. The pesto recipe used here is not “authentic.” Because of nettles' mild, earthy flavor, I thought it would be a good idea to give the pesto a bit of a kick with lemon zest and crushed red pepper. Let your imagination guide you. Below is something approximating what we did.
3 oz. fresh nettles, rinsed and spun dry
Zest of one lemon, minced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
½ tsp. crushed red pepper
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
4 oz Chevre or other soft cheese
Place first four ingredients in food processor and process until well-minced, then, with the processor on, drizzle in the olive oil until it forms a smooth paste. Fold into the cheese. Enjoy with crackers or toast, as we did. See? Easy!
PIZZA AL ORTICA (baking the stingers away)
This was the least successful of the recipes, and it's a pity, because there is so much potential in this dish. The thing that we didn't do (my fault) was to coat the nettles before baking. See, if you coat the nettles—whether in oil or sauce or even as simply as in heavy cream—before baking, they turn soft and smooth, while retaining their lovely, green, earthy flavor. If you don't, they dry out into tasty pieces of shredded paper. Not pleasant on pizza. Below is a combination of what we did with what we should have done. Lesson learned for next time.
Preheat oven to 425º, place a sheet pan in the oven to heat
One pizza dough (buy it or make your own, you'll want about 5 oz. of dough per pizza)
4-6 oz. mozzarella
2 garlic cloves, minced
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Crushed red pepper
2 oz. nettles, washed and spun dry
Begin by stretching your dough into whatever shape you like. Drizzle it with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, red pepper, and minced garlic, spread ingredients evenly on the dough. Chop your nettles. This is the most challenging part, and I recommend rubber gloves. Otherwise, ouch. Once chopped, transfer the nettles to a bowl. Shave Parmesan into the bowl (we used a veggie peeler to make long strips), then toss with olive oil or cream or another sauce (hindsight!). Just make sure the sauce is light. Place your dressed nettles onto the pizza and slide them into the oven on the preheated pan. Bake until the crust is browned.
Now, remember the cooking liquid used to blanch the nettles for the first recipe? The reason that I suggested saving it is that what you've made is nettle tea. Go ahead and try it. It's quite tasty! This is also what, in the South, we call “pot likker.” It's the liquid left after cooking greens, and it should never be thrown away! If you simply can't bring yourself to try it as a tea (and whyever not?) add it to your compost or garden patch or give it to your chickens. They'll love it!
Speaking of tea, at the end of the class, everyone got about a gallon and a half of larger nettle leaves to take home and dry for tea. In the past, I've tried hanging the leaves in a bundle, but in Seattle I haven't had good results. It's just too moist. Instead, either spread the leaves on an oven sheet and place them in on the lowest heat setting, pop them into your home dehydrator (mine took about eight hours to be completely dry), or borrow a dehydrator. The NE Seattle Tool Library and the Sustainable NE Seattle Community Kitchen (housed at Meadowbrook Community Center) both lend them out, though to borrow from the Community Kitchen you must have taken their equipment class. Once dry, the stingers are completely gone.
The last thing to discuss is that foliar feed I mentioned earlier. This is how we'll use up the sinkful of stems we had left after class ended. What you do is take your nettles and submerge them in a bucket of water. Leave this sitting for a couple of months, stirring weekly, until it is well-broken-down, slimy, and foul-smelling (really). Then strain off the nettles and use the liquid, mixed about 1:10 with water, to water your plants. They'll get a lovely shot of liquid nutrition that will do them a world of good! And remember, if that seems like too much trouble, they can just go straight onto the compost pile.
Again, thank you to everyone who came out. If you couldn't make it, I hope this gets you interested in the richness of nettles readily available in the Seattle area! For more classes like this one, check out the events page at Sustainable NE Seattle.