Produce of the Week - Nettle
sponsored by Coleman Farms
When I think of Nettles, I tend to think of neglect and deprivation. Nettles often thrive along the walls of abandoned farm buildings and in the shade of untended cemeteries. Together with cabbage and root vegetables, Nettles were used to make soup by the few inmates, too ill to march, left behind by the SS when they abandoned Auschwitz. Nettles, with their sting and rank invasiveness, are the archetype of the weed, but have a long history and wide variety of folk uses. And suddenly, Nettles have become high style.
The Nettle is a very versatile plant, one whose stalks can provide fiber for textile (the mysterious ramie is from a non-stinging nettle) and whose leaves have medicinal uses as well as culinary ones. The medical uses range from topical application of fresh leaves as a sort of counterirritant to joint pain to a digestive and blood tonic, expectorant and cough supressant and a relief for allergies, the relatively mild-acting plant histamines 'blocking' the human ones.
The tisane is a sort of bridge between the medical and the culinary, providing a beverage that is nice to drink as well as being a diuretic and tonic rich in vitamin C, carotene, calcium and iron which also has benefits for the digestion and antidiarrhetic. The leaves - preferably the whorls and bud at the end of a stalk - also make a nice green. The rule seems to be 'substitute for spinach' - with crepes, cream soups, ravioli filling and frittata being specific suggestions. These are cooked dishes, and you've got to cook, or at least blanch, Nettles in order to disable the sting. Once blanched, they can also be incorporated into not strictly cooked dishes, such as salads, where they'd pair nicely with boiled potatoes.
The 'substitute for spinach' rule is probably based largely on their similar, very soft or 'mushy' texture when well-cooked. Nettles, though, are slightly grainy rather than slippery, and while Spinach has a very narrow focussed flavor with more or less tartness depending on its oxalic acid content, Nettles offer a broader, rounded earthy flavor, something approaching a green like Lacinato Kale, yet grassier and with no hint of cabbage.
The web coverage of Nettles is surprisingly rich. Searching 'nettle' or 'stinging nettle' returns non-culinary pages for the most part, while 'nettles cooking' will give more cooking suggestions than you could use in a year. We'll close with one of these, an upscale risotto.
There's a tendency to think of the plant world as quite unrelated to us, more than insentient, as physiologically separate, apart perhaps from sharing certain basic proteins and things. But it goes farther than that: the sting in Nettles is produced by three chemicals critical to human physiology: histamine, too familiar to anyone with allergies, and the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and serotonin. These chemicals are contained in little ampoule-like hairs on the Nettle leaves which break and spill their contents when contacted by passing skin. The histamine causes inflammation and the neurotransmitters apparently amplify the resulting pain. If you've been stung by a nettle - and ours apparently offer a relatively mild sting - you know that the Nettle gets a lot of protection from a tiny amount of chemical. But a neurotransmitter, in a plant?
Look for Stinging Nettle at Coleman Farms and at Earth Tryne Farms, in the Santa Barbara market.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org