Nettles, the magical stinging weed, turn into luscious nourishment once heat touches them. Yes, we eat them!
Nettles make us so giddy; they are such a treat and they don’t last long. When they arrive in early spring we stalk them and try to get them at their most prime, before they go to seed and get too rough and woody to enjoy. They are one of the first fresh local greens to come on the scene here in the Pacific Northwest and are a key player in your allergy prevention plan.
They like to grow in marshy, wet places (like most places in the Pacific Northwest this time of year), alongside fields and swamps, near creeks and moist woodlands. When harvesting nettles, be sure to wear gloves and long pants, bring scissors to snip off the tender top shoots and if you’re lucky you can go around for a second harvest. As with any herb you harvest, just make sure you are 100% sure of correctly identifying the herb before consuming.
Many people see stinging nettles as a troublesome invasive weed, but they are actually a delicious food. All wild foods are far more nutrient dense than the domesticated plants we eat most often. Stinging nettles, when lightly steamed to remove their sting, are reminiscent of spinach. They make a delicious earthy tasting tea and when infused for 4 hours or more and offer an amazing source of key vitamins A and C, and minerals like calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium, that many of us are lacking. Nettles are also known for their anti-inflammatory effects and are particularly effective in treating allergic rhinitis, and providing relief for nearly all the symptoms of itchy, watery eyes, sneezing and runny nose.
We at Starkel Nutrition eat a lot of nettles this time of year; basically you can enjoy them in any dish you would use spinach for. So far we’ve really been digging stinging nettle omelettes, hummus, palak paneer, teas and other delightful nettle experiments. We have even been adding them to our stock recipe to increase nutrient and mineral content. If harvesting your own isn’t up your alley, you can often find fresh nettles and fiddlehead ferns at your local farmer’s market from Foraged and Found Edibles. Dried nettle, ideal for making tea infusions, is available at most specialty grocers and herb stores around Seattle as well as in powdered form to add to your smoothies or take as capsules!
Persons using blood thinners or blood pressure lowering medications should not use nettle leaf without consulting with a doctor. If you have any medical condition, consult with your doctor or healthcare practitioner before using this or any herb.
Look for fiddlehead ferns at your local farmer’s market or specialty grocer from March to June as they thrive in moist shaded environments like Spring time in the Pacific Northwest. The term “fiddle” refers to the resemblance of the curling head of a fiddle/violin. They are similar in flavor to asparagus or green beans and a nutrient dense source of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C and potassium. The stalks are edible, although unless you’re picking them yourself, generally you’ll just see the coiled tops being sold.
How to Store and Prep
Fiddleheads should be consumed shortly after you bring them home. If you have to store them, keep them in the fridge wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and use them within a couple of days. They won’t spoil quickly, but they will lose flavor and firmness. We’d advise against freezing since they can become fibrous and fishy. When you’re ready to cook them, give the fiddleheads a good rinse, then place them in a bowl of water and rub to remove all of their papery scale-like coverings.
Consider This Fair Warning – Only Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads!
When we say fiddleheads, we are strictly talking about ostrich fern fiddleheads, as they are considered the safest for consumption. People frequently forage for fiddleheads of other varieties like the lady fern or the shield fern, and consider them to be safe as long as they’re cooked. Bracken fern fiddleheads are an especially controversial variety; many believe the ferns are fine to consume in small quantities, but they’re known to contain a carcinogen.
How to Cook
As a result of these cases, safety standards recommend boiling fiddleheads for 15 minutes or steaming them for 10 to 12 minutes prior to use in recipes. Of course, there is debate about this as well: John Mickel, senior curator emeritus at The New York Botanical Garden, suggests that cooking just 5 minutes is sufficient.
Either way, your fiddleheads shouldn’t be consumed raw. Boiling fiddleheads will best retain their color and texture, and will help to remove any bitterness. In order to highlight their unique flavor, fiddleheads are arguably best prepared simply: boil, then lightly sauté with butter and finish with lemon. You can also think about using fiddleheads in the same ways you’d use asparagus or haricot verts. We do again recommend purchasing from a trusted source like Foraged and Found Edibles or your nearest specialty grocer unless you have specific training in harvesting your own.