Stinging Nettles Add Zing to Spring Menus
BY KAY WEST
When it comes to the first harbinger of spring on local menus, ramps get the glory. But chefs and foragers alike call stinging nettles the humble heroes of seasonal rejuvenation. Aside from their proliferation and exemplary nutritional properties—plentiful vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants qualify them as a superfood—the leaves of the common stinging nettle plant lend themselves as a cooking ingredient to everything from pizza to pudding.
Chef Brian Canipelli, owner of Cucina 24, says he was unfamiliar with nettles until local foragers began bringing them to the door of his Italian restaurant in downtown Asheville. “People get so excited when ramps come in,” he says. “We use them, but they’ve gotten so trendy and expensive, I don’t go crazy with them. Nettles are abundant and one of the first things to come up in early spring, so we find several ways to use them.”
Jason Sellers, chef and co-owner of the vegan restaurant Plant in Asheville, is also a fan of the wild green. “Nettles are one of those things that puts energy back in menu planning for me,” he says. “They are one of those fun spring ephemerals that get me excited about the new season.”
Asheville’s professional kitchens source nettles almost exclusively through relationships with foragers, whose deliveries may also include mushrooms, berries, herbs and, yes, ramps.
James Armbruster is one such local forager. He began doing the job professionally in his native St. Louis when he was just 18. But it wasn’t until he relocated to Asheville in 2013 that he realized his dream of doing it full time, in part because of the abundance of edible plants.
“When I moved here, I found my mentor in Alan Muskat [founder of No Taste Like Home, a local foraging tour operator], who introduced me to the main plants in this area,” he says. “Nettles obviously are one of those. The first time I tried them, I fell in love with them.” Susi Segurét, a well-known local chef and cookbook author, grew up eating nettles but had to overcome an early distaste for them with a few cooking techniques that unlocked their potential.
“My parents were homesteaders in Madison County in the early 1960s, living off the land, so my mother fed nettles to me as a child,” she recalls. “She was not very fastidious about washing them before cooking, so we were often crunching on worm heads, and she sometimes boiled them to an unpleasant texture. I intensely disliked nettles.”
That changed when Segurét moved to France and found them growing abundantly on her property. Curious and living frugally, she learned to cook them to her liking. “I’d sauté sliced potatoes and onion in butter, add a big bunch of thoroughly washed nettles and some chicken stock, then purée it, throw on some croutons and swirl in some heavy cream.” To this simple soup, one can add a loaf of crusty French bread, a hunk of cheese, and, voilà—a hearty, healthy meal.
Armbruster, who regularly delivers foraged nettles to about 10 chefs in Asheville, says they grow most plentifully in old cow pastures, meadows, and along rivers. He uses scissors to cut the tops, helping to prolong the season, which is generally about six weeks in late March and April until the plants start to flower. He then collects them in large bags, and delivers them that day. “They go right to the restaurants and could be in a dish that night.”
As their name implies, stinging nettles can in fact sting. Their leaves are tear-shaped with a saw-toothed edge, but it’s actually the little hairs on the underside of the leaves and stem that sting. Rubber gloves are a must to protect hands and forearms. Gloves also come in handy for preparing nettles to cook.
The leaves are removed from the tough stems, then washed and soaked in a pan of water or the sink for about 10 minutes. A quick 60-second blanch in boiling water renders them harmless. Once the sting is removed, chefs tend to approach and use nettles as they do other greens, particularly spinach, though the taste is a bit different.
“To me, they have little more of a minerally flavor than spinach—a little nuttiness to them, a bit wilder,” says Canipelli.
At Cucina 24, diners might find nettles creamed as a side dish, filling Capinelli’s fresh pasta or strewn across a wood-fired pizza. In addition to soup, Segurét makes ramps and nettle quiche and intends to experiment with nettle pesto this spring. Sellers is looking forward to using nettles to add some spring zing to Plant’s seasonal uttapam, a savory South Indian lentil and rice pancake. “We pour the batter in a hot pan and add some blanched nettles,” he explains. “Once the first side is cooked, we brush a little oil on the nettles, flip it, and let the nettles sear and bake into the batter.
“Nettles are beautiful,” Sellers says. “They’re wild and a bit dangerous with that sting, and the steam from blanching smells like a goat barn. But once the sting and smell are gone, it’s a brilliant transformation and magical outcome.” ◊◊