I first encountered nettles when I was taking a course in herbalism. As part of my herbalism class, we would take trips to harvest medicinal plants. It was 10 years ago this spring when we went up to Sea Ranch and I got to harvest nettles in the wild. We went into forestry land armed with elbow-length calf-skin gloves and shears, and found a large patch. They were so majestic, so green and so beautiful. I harvested enough plants to fill my little bag and when I got home I hung them up to dry, to be used later for tinctures and teas. It’s amazing to me how green the tea and the tinctures become. That depth of color made me feel like I was taking in something magical.
Nettles have many healing properties. They have astringent and diuretic properties, which make them great for healing urinary, gastrointestinal and renal issues. They have also been used topically to treat skin ailments and dandruff. I was interested in them because their anti-inflammatory properties are believed to help fight allergies. So I would drink tea from the dried leaves or add tincture drops to my water bottle during allergy season. Maybe it’s because I’ve had issues with asthma and allergies my whole life that my body knows that nettles can heal it. All I know is that when I drink a cup of nettle tea, a sense of happiness and peace spreads over me and through me. It’s almost as if the feeling is on a cellular level – I feel it physically.
When my herbal instructor introduced nettles as medicine, she also pointed out that many cultures treat nettles as a green similar to spinach. At that point in my life, I wasn’t nearly the connoisseur of produce that I am now. I had never heard of nettles before that class, let alone known that they could be eaten as a vegetable. Nettles are full of nutritional value in addition to their healing properties. They are high in vitamins C, A and B complex as well as potassium, iron and sulfur. They are also a good source of fiber. But more importantly, they taste good.
My first opportunity to have nettles as a food was at a lunch at Farallon. Nettle ravioli were on the menu and as soon as I saw that, I couldn’t imagine ordering anything else. The ravioli were perfectly cooked and I thoroughly enjoyed my first taste of nettles. There was something so lovely about the flavor. They was a sweetness and a brightness that made me feel like I’m was getting hugged from the inside.
That was over a decade ago, and I was still a neophyte in the kitchen. I hadn’t really started shopping at the farmers markets yet and I didn’t truly understand the seasonality of produce. So, other than dried nettles at Rainbow Grocery or Scarlet Sage Herb Co., I didn’t encounter fresh nettles again until a few years ago. I was so excited the day I spotted them at Knoll Farms at CUESA’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. I grabbed a one-pound bag and took them home. I just did a simple sauté with garlic and olive oil. Holy cow were they good! I couldn’t wait to get more. However, I must have found them late in their season because I didn’t find them again until the following year.
Happily, the farm from which I now buy the majority of my produce, Mariquita, offers nettles every spring as well. Now I have a great source and I can get nettles all through their season. I also freeze a bag so I can have them long after their season is over. I love experimenting with them, using them as a pesto, in risotto, in soups, etc. I’ve even added them to deviled eggs to make a lovely St. Patrick’s Day treat. Nettles are great as food, as a tea and extracted into alcohol as a tincture. They are an amazing and versatile plant.
1 lb. nettles
½ cup crème fraîche
1 tbsp. Marcona almonds, finely chopped, plus whole almonds for garnish
salt & pepper to taste
Place room temperature eggs in a pot and add cold water to cover up to an inch above the eggs. Bring to a boil. As soon as the water reaches a rolling boil, immediately cover; remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes remove eggs from pan and place in large bowl of ice water for 15-20 minutes, until they are cool.
Using gloves or tongs, wash the nettles and place in a pan. Put on medium heat and cook until fully wilted, about 10-15 minutes. Turn off heat and allow to cool. Once cooked, nettles no longer have a sting. When they are cool enough to handle place cooked nettles in cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. You want the nettles to be very dry or the yolk mixture will be too runny. I squeeze the juice into a bowl and turn it into iced tea later. When you have squeezed out as much water out as you can, place nettles on a cutting board and chop a few times, so they are not long and stringy. Then place into the bowl of a food processor.
Carefully peel the eggs and slice in half the long way. Gently remove the yolk and add it to the food processor. Put the empty whites onto your serving dish. Do this for all the eggs until you have filled your tray. You may have an egg or two left over. Save them for a salad Niçoise for dinner.
Once you have all the yolks and nettles in the food processor, add the crème fraîche and puree until smooth. Remove the puree from the food processor and place in a mixing bowl. Stir in the almonds and add salt and pepper to taste. If the mixture is too thick, you can add more crème fraîche to thin it out. Just be sure to taste again to see if you need to add more salt or pepper.
Once your mixture is to your taste and texture, spoon or pipe it into the yolk wells in the egg whites. Top with a halved Marcona almond and serve.
The leftover yolk mixture also makes a great dip for asparagus and radishes.