Stinging nettles do not sound like something any non-masochistic person would want to munch on, yet they are a springtime delicacy in the culinary world and appear on local menus as soon as they pop out of the ground. The stinging nettle is a hearty plant that grows wild in temperate climates with rich, moist soil. Its leaves contain tiny, spiky hairs that, when touched, or brushed up against, release chemicals that cause itching and irritation to the skin. When nettles are cooked, however, their chemical potency is diminished and what remains is an edible, hearty, spinach-like green that is packed with vitamins, antioxidants and protein. Nettles can be used in place of spinach or chard in most recipes and is often found in dishes like soups, pastas and even tea.
I have eaten nettles in restaurants in the past, but quite frankly they never leave much of an impression on me and I can't usually recall what they taste like shortly after I've had them. They are so popular, however, that when I noticed them at the farmer's market yesterday, I decided to pick up a bag and give them another try. I asked the woman selling the nettles how she recommended I cook them (they cost $10.00 a pound and I wanted to be sure I did this right,) and she suggested that I saute them with garlic and serve them on a pizza with some good ricotta cheese. So that was my plan.
Having been warned repeatedly not to handle the nettles with my bare hands, I donned a pair of gardening gloves and got to work removing the tender leaves from their tough stems. If I were going to puree the greens for a soup that would be strained, I would have left the stems intact, but after cooking up a test batch with the stems on, I decided that trying to gnaw through them was more trouble than it was worth.
Once cooked, I found the taste of the nettles to be somewhat unremarkable, yet again. They were similar to spinach, but, oddly enough, had a strange, subtle flavor that can only be described as fishy. The texture, although washed three times, was a little gritty (which I later learned comes from their minute, aphid looking flowers) and I had a hard time getting past that. Before I passed a final judgement, however, I decided to try them on pizza with some goat cheese, green garlic and speck.
The nettles fared better on the pizza than on their own but, the flavor was so mild that they didn't really add much bite the way some sweet chard or bitter rapini would have. In fact, my preference for them in that context probably had more to do with the other ingredients on the pizza, than the greens themselves.
All in all, I'm going to have to say that I'm still not sold on stinging nettles. I'll definitely try them next time I see them on the menu at a restaurant, because I really want to understand the hype. Until then, however, I think I'll stick to other, more flavorful and less potentially pain inducing greens.