Imagine our early hominid ancestors exploring outside the cave after a long, cold winter and enough jerked mammoth to convert the first vegetarians. The snow has melted, yet the ground is still brown—except for those fetching emerald shoots down by the river. Craving fresh greens, the hominids rush to pick these first signs of spring. But wait!
Our ancestors would have needed to use those weirdly big brains of theirs to take advantage of such enticing fare. These demure shoots are covered with tiny spines that pack a painful punch, not unlike the sting of a fire ant.
These days, the stinging nettle is well known to modern country folk and even urbanites around the globe. Nettles have more protein than nearly all other species in the plant kingdom, and in terms of other nutrients and vitamins, they’re off the charts. Their taste is bold and spicy, like a wild spinach.
Look for nettles in moist woodlands, often near water or wetlands. I’ve found them in Seattle as early as late January, though early this month is more typical. The sting hurts and will linger, sometimes for several hours. Wear gloves, long sleeves and pants. Bring kitchen shears and a freestanding receptacle, such as a paper bag or basket. Ideal nettles will be young and tender, a foot tall. Snip off the top few whorls of leaves and move to the next one. Once you get your nettles home, you’ll need to process them with a quick blanching in boiling water to remove the formic acid what causes the sting. Now you can use your nettles in any recipe that calls for cooked spinach, such as lasagna, gnocchi or ravioli. Or substitute nettles for basil in a classic pesto.
I get excited about the first nettles of the year. My go-to dish usually is a simple soup made with caramelized onions, potatoes and stock, with a pinch of nutmeg. The handy immersion blender churns it into a hearty green marvel, which I’ll savor while nursing a careless sting on the wrist, earned from a fine—yet impatient—spring morning in the nettle patch.