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HomeSurvivalFood and Cooking

Cooking With Nettles (Urtica dioca)

by Mark Tollefson

Cooking with nettles

I'll never forget my first experience with Stinging Nettles. I was down on my hands and knees one spring tracking a Pacific Blacktail deer. I had followed the young doe for about 100 yards through some high open ground and then it had cut into a low area that was overgrown with blackberry vines and willows and lots of ferns.

Determined to learn more of this stately creature, I followed on all fours. I didn't get too far on the trail when I started to get stung on my hands. The farther I traveled, the more I got stung. In no time my hands burned so bad that I backed out of the trail and left the deer alone. Now, I wondered, what the heck was making my hands bum so bad. I got back on my hands and knees and searched the ground. All I could see were a whole mess of little green plants about an inch high. At the time I had no idea what they were, but I wasn't about to pick one to go home and try to identify it in light of how bad my hands were still burning.

The memory of my burning hands stuck with me for the next few weeks until I had time to grab a field guide and go back to the place where I had gotten stung. When I arrived, I noticed that these plants that were about an inch high were now about 8 inches high. They were developing nice big leaves and I thought 1 should have a good shot at figuring out what this feisty plant was. So I started flipping, and flopping, and flipping pages, until lo and behold, I came across this picture that sure looked like the plant growing in front of me. I read the description: "The stinging hairs make this a difficult group to mistake. Erect, usually unbranched weeds with paired toothed leaves." That sure sounded and looked like the plant growing in front of me. Lots of little hairs (that I wasn't about to touch again), paired, toothed leaves. Yes, this plant, I declared, is Stinging Nettle!!

I then started to study nettles in earnest. All the books were full of medicinal and utilitarian uses for the plant. I read how they were full of vitamin C and A, how they have acetylcholine and choline in them, both of which are deficient in Alzheimer's patients. I found out that nettles are a great blood tonic and cleanser, I read how they are being studied for their effect on kidney ailments, prostate cancer, gall bladder problems, arthritis relief, and hepatitis.

I discovered that nettles were once grown as a fibre plant in Europe, and they contain about 15% fibre by weight that can be processed into a soft, flexible textile said to feel much like silk. I then read how these plants made great cordage. Good for rope or any other thing that requires a strong cordage material.

All this information was really exciting and good information, but it didn't answer the one burning question in my mind. Does it taste good?? Well, for that, I went back to my field guides. Sure enough, according to Peterson's Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants and Tom Brown's Field to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants, Nettles are good to eat!! When I read that, I was sold.

I began to experiment with cooking with nettles. I tried them young, old, big, small, dried, and fresh. In the course of about three years, I had harvested a lot of nettles and had become a lot more friendly with the prickly plant. I hadn't really realized how friendly we had become until one fall, after the first frost, I was gathering needles for cordage and a fellow with his dog comes walking down a little used trail and spies me in the middle of a giant nettle patch with nothing but a pair of shorts on. He (and his big dog) looked at me kind of funny and he says, "Son, do you know your standing naked in the middle of a patch of thistle??" With a grin, I said, "Actually, I'm standing naked in the middle of a patch of Stinging Nettles." He didn't see my humour and stomped off with his dog eyeing me up more like dinner than like some funny guy in a thistle patch (I now carry doggie treats when I go hunting the wild nettle).

Since my passion is cooking, I ended up eating lots of nettles. I tried them boiled like spinach and they were good. I made nettle soup and it was better. Then I stumbled upon my favourite to date, Stinging Nettle Lasagne. It makes the lasagne taste great with the slight bitterness of the young nettles and I feel great eating it knowing how many great vitamins and minerals are in the nettles.

Lasagne is also a good way to ease into eating wild edibles. Having them mixed into a very common dish can be a great way to introduce nettles to a squeamish child, or dubious partner that doesn't have a great deal of confidence in eating stuff that can't be found in the supermarket. Start slow with recipes like the one following and work up to eating wild edibles on a more regular basis. With spring on the way, there will be ample opportunity to sample a great deal of luscious greenery. Have fun, and remember, don't eat anything you cannot positively identify.


Stinging Nettle Lasagne

1 lb. ground beef (or ground wild game)
2 tsp. salt
1 medium onion, fine dice
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 cup celery, fine dice
1 tbsp. oregano
28 oz. whole tomatoes
2 tsp. basil
14 oz. tomato sauce
1 tsp. thyme

1-5 1/2 oz. can tomato paste
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 cup cottage cheese
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 egg
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella
12 cooked whole wheat lasagne noodles
3 cups fresh young nettle tops
1 cup chopped mushrooms

Saute onion, celery and garlic in 1/2 cup oil until onions become translucent. Add ground beef and brown breaking apart with fork. Drain and chop whole tomatoes. Add mushrooms, chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste. Add 1 tsp. salt oregano, basil and thyme and simmer for 15 minutes. Combine egg, cottage cheese, parmesan cheese, the last tablespoon of oil and I tsp. of salt. Mix together in a bowl. While sauce is cooking, blanche nettles for 5 minutes until nettles are wilted. In a 9 by 13 inch pan, begin with a layer of noodles on the bottom. Add a layer of tomato sauce, more noodles, then the cottage cheese mixture. Finish with the last layer of noodles, the grated cheese and a light sprinkle of parmesan cheese. Cover and bake at 350- for 25 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until cheese is bubbly and brown. Remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes before serving.


From True Tracks, Spring 1999, published by the Tracker School.
There's more articles from True Tracks on the Tracker Trail website.