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Taking the Sting out of Nettles

I’d like to file a petition to officially divide the spring season into two sub-seasons: “Spring,” which comes after Mother’s Day and is usually lovely, and “Unsprung,” the obstinate lovechild of January and July. I don’t like Unsprung, that prepubescent stage between March and April. Every year, I’m hoodwinked into believing that the rain will end, the sun will come out, and we’ll finally be able to stop eating root vegetables. Instead, week after week, I find the same pathetic produce in stores and put up with two months of petulant weather.

Last week, for example, it was 80 degrees in Seattle, and I thought the cold weather was gone. I sailed to my farmers’ market on a boat of absurd optimism, thinking that on some sunny slope within driving distance, a well-tended patch of asparagus might have been bribed out of hibernation. I fantasized about tender, bendy rhubarb and early morels, but the market mocked me. I bought obese parsnips. Again. And kale. Again. And onions. Again. And my hope boat sank.

I listened to David, my favorite forager, give his slow, sad spiel about morels being a few weeks away still, and I felt sorry for him. It’s not his fault he’s peddling dried mushrooms that cost more than my car. I looked past a disappointed customer, into the basket David reserves for fresh finds, and saw a fat bag of freshly picked stinging nettles. They looked like mint’s Mafia cousin—bigger, and, with the ability to cause paresthesia (temporary tingling, prickling, and numbness) on contact, a little scarier.

The first time I tasted nettles, an Italian woman named Fiamma was at the stove. My husband and I were invited to dinner, and there they were, a mountainous tangle of two-inch leaves with Rocky Mountain edges, just sitting on the counter, waiting to sting someone. With my hands knitted safely together behind my back, I leaned closer to see the bed of little poisonous hairs that grows on each leaf.

Fiamma picked one up and ate it. Raw. I recoiled. I’d heard people in the kitchen calling them “nettles” instead of “stinging nettles.” It’s a clever euphemism from a marketing standpoint, but as far as I’d heard, nettles hadn’t (yet) been genetically engineered to mind their manners, and why eat a food that hurts you? I, for one, expect a certain docility from my vegetables.

Fiamma munched on another one, and I started to understand why her parents named her Flame.

“The little needles only grow on the sunny side of the leaf,” she explained. “If you fold the fuzzy side onto itself just right, so your mouth only touches the smooth part, you can eat nettles raw without stinging yourself.”

Easy for her to say. I lost a layer of tongue to a popsicle once, and popsicles never hurt anyone.

The good thing, for those of us who aren’t so great with botanical origami, is that heat neutralizes the bouquet of irritants a nettle leaf carries. So as long as you cook them, which I highly recommend, they’re edible.

Fiamma boiled and chopped her nettles, then folded them, along with sorrel, fresh ricotta, and a bit of nutmeg, into an agnolotti filling. All evening, as we rolled and folded and simmered and (hours later) ate, I wondered if, having somehow sheltered itself from the boiling water, a rebel faction of still-stinging nettles would leap out of the pasta and attack my soft palate. But there were no insurgents, only mouthfuls of a most delicious, herbaceous green filling. So I began cooking nettles at home.

Once tamed, nettles have the iron-rich flavor of spinach, plus a hint of bright herbiness and a touch of tartness that make them decidedly sexier. And since they’re usually stirred into things—as opposed to eaten on their own—nettles pack a nutritional punch (iron and calcium, to start) while conveniently sparing the eater what’s best known as the “tooth sweater” experience, that most offensive texture begotten by a mouthful of spinach.

As far as high-maintenance produce goes, Urtica dioica are actually quite amenable in the kitchen, too. Yes, they’ll give you pins and needles if you touch them, but compared to other prima donna produce delicacies, like fava or garbanzo beans, nettles require very little of the most annoying sort of attention: time.

Cleaning them is the fastest part. You could wash them, I’m sure, but frankly, I don’t bother. David’s nettles come swaddled in an air-filled plastic bag. Maybe the air prevents the stems from tearing through the sides of the bag (and through my market basket and into my armpit). Or maybe the puffiness is just a sign to smart shoppers like me that this bag is different from all other bags. This produce is washed by nature, so I don’t have to touch it.

That’s always been my interpretation. But last week, when I got back from the market, I peered in through the plastic, and saw a little ladybug hanging out on a leaf, having lunch. My first instinct was to highjack Lady’s little picnic by washing all three dollars’ worth of nettles. I opened the bag and nearly dumped the whole green tangle into the bowl of cold water I’d readied in the sink. At T minus zero, I realized plunging my hands into a tubful of nettles would be akin to juggling the hot coals from my Weber. I changed my mind. For a minute, I considered getting out the salad spinner—there was a real, live insect in there, after all—but I had twice the volume of greens that my spinner can handle, and I couldn’t convince myself that I’d be able to clean two batches of stinging nettles and transfer them to the pot without causing significant dermatological harm. So, based on things I’d heard about boiling water being really, really clean, I decided to just cook the nettles. Bug and all.

Lady, bless her little heart, came floating right up to the surface, where she got fished out with a spoon. I wrung my cooked greens out in a towel, like you do with spinach, and whirled them into a nettle-pecan pesto, to be twisted up with expensive bucatini, along with a little grated Parmesan and a handful of toasted breadcrumbs. As my husband and I forked in our noodles, bite after urgent, hungry bite, I made a silent promise to look forward to early spring next year, stinging weather and all.

I got another bag of nettles last weekend to make a batch of the pesto for a friend. As I was standing at the stove, waiting for the water to boil, I wondered what giving nettle-anything says about the giver or the giftee, in the Martha Stewart sense. Maybe it’s the ultimate sting, a symbolic little stabbing for your barb-tongued ex. Or maybe, given to just the right person, a beribboned jar of nettle pesto is a not-so-subtle message to look on the green side, and embrace spring, in each of its patient steps, even if the weather is miserable.

In that case, I’ll keep the second batch.

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