Stinging nettles can make tasty table fare, but they must be harvested carefully.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
With the coming of spring many turn to the outdoors for their table fare by fishing for salmon and halibut, or by hunting a variety of game animals. But, the backcountry buffet doesn’t have to stop with the entree.
Stinging nettles one of the first forest floor plants to emerge in spring can make a side dish to wild game that’s not just edible, but delicious, nutritious and nonstinging, of course.
“You can eat them as a spring green, but the key is to get them early,” said Janice Chumley, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Office in Soldotna.
However, just like securing meat can be dangerous for the bear hunter, nettle picking is also not done without some risk. Nettles are maligned by many due to their stinging ability.
“In fact, the Latin name for nettles is Urtica gracilis, and the root of that word, ‘uro,’ means ‘to burn,’” Chumley said.
She explained that this stinging is caused by the tiny needlelike hairs on the stalks of nettles that contain a complex cocktail of chemicals, including formic acid the same chemical that causes bee stings and ant bites to burn.
And, in the same way different people react to insect stings, different people can have various degrees of irritation from contact with nettles.
“The burning can last minutes to days,” Chumley said.
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid this stinging when harvesting nettles, according to Chumley. She said “The best thing to do is suit up. Wear long sleeves, long pants and gloves.”
Chumley said now is also a perfect time to harvest nettles since young shoots are just poking up in many areas.
“You want to pick them when they’re small, young and tender,” she said.
Nettles grow quickly, up to 6 feet tall in some areas, but Chumley said as nettles get older they become tougher and more fibrous, which greatly diminishes their palatability.
The stinging of nettles is caused by the tiny needlelike hairs on the stalks, pictured below, that contain a complex cocktail of chemicals, including formic acid - the same chemical that causes bee stings and ant bites to burn
Photo by Joseph Robertia
As to where to pick nettles, Chumley said most people don’t have to look far. They can be found almost everywhere, from wide open coastal fields to the thick, forested understory of the Kenai Mountains.
Some green thumbs even keep small patches in the gardens.
“They are extremely widespread and grow all across Alaska,” she said.
Nettles can be identified by their heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins that grow on opposite sides of the stem. Their stinging ability isn’t a bad way to accurately identify nettles either.
Like any wild green, nettles should be rinsed thoroughly before being cooked, and Chumley said, fortunately, cooking nettles just like spinach would be cooked ensures that this wild green’s stinging ability doesn’t follow it to the dinner table.
“Boiling, steaming, stir-frying, it all takes the sting out,” Chumley said.
And, once cooked, she said they are a treat to the taste buds, whether as a side dish or as an ingredient in the main course.
“They’re good in soups, stews, I’ve even had them on pizza,” she said.
Chumley added that cooked nettles are also good to eat in more ways than one. They are rich in vitamins such as A and C, and minerals such as iron. Nettles are also high in protein and full of fiber.
Nettles also tend to grow back year after year in the same place. This makes them a reliable source of free greens for those willing to harvest them, rather than relying on whatever commercially grown green is available in the produce isle of the grocery store.
“They are one more option for those that like looking for food sources in the woods,” Chumley said.
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