Nettles are a sadly underrated "weed" that grows profusely throughout most of the United States. The variety known as wood nettles prefer moist, shaded forest areas, while stinging nettles often cluster in sunny patches where the soil is rich and has been disturbed by human settlement--along trails, railroad beds and fence lines.
A spring green that's sweet and mild-mannered in flavor and high in minerals and vitamins, nettles are often compared to spinach. But while nettles can replace spinach in just about any cooked dish, few people dare to eat them raw. That's because the tapered, jagged-edged leaves contain an antagonizing irritant that will sting fingers, legs or any exposed flesh that comes into contact with them. Foragers wear gloves and long sleeves to harvest nettles, but if you've purchased your bunch at a farmers' market or grocery store, chances are you don't have to worry about getting stung, for the prickliness dissipates within hours of harvesting.
In addition, heat dissolves the hair-like stinging needles of even the freshest leaves, so cooked nettles are completely safe to eat. Briefly steamed or sauteed (5-10 minutes will do it), they have a rich but abstract vegetal flavor that make them a good mix in all sorts of dishes, especially soups and savory tarts. Like spinach, nettles lose much of their volume when cooked, but unlike many greens, they retain their deep green color.
..check with the appropriate authority before setting out. Foraging restrictions vary on public lands, and on private property you must get the ownerís permission. Reference a reputable field guide book, preferably one thatís specific to your region, or apprentice with an experienced hunter. Never eat a wild plant you canít positively identify. And please, donít get greedy: pick only a portion of what you find, to allow the plants to replenish themselves for next year.
In case you can't find enough in the wild or at the market, we've provided substitute ingredients for each recipe.
When you get home, take care to thoroughly clean your cache. Tender greens, especially, should be rinsed well under or in cold water and often require several washings. Dry them in cotton or paper towels and keep them chilled in plastic bags. This will help prevent loss of moisture and vitamins, but not for long--most wild greens decline after a couple of days.
If youíre new to a particular wild edible, make your first serving a small one. As with any food, allergic reactions are rare, but possible.
Finally, whether you gather, grow or purchase the wild foods of spring, get them now, for all too soon, theyíll be gone.