Monday, 26 March 2012

Making friends with nettles

If there is one plant that is absolutely hated in gardens, it is nettle. It overgrows large areas in a short time, it is hard to remove (with meters of roots under the ground) and the worst thing: they sting! Who hasn't had the irritating experience of red and white itchy bumps on the skin while playing or walking outside? 

However, let's try to make the best of it. The lower side of the leafs do not have stinging hairs; picking the plants here does not result in itchiness (it asks a little care to master this though). Also, nettles form a perfect nursery for caterpillars. Even though they are not that preferred in a vegetable garden, they grow up as pretty and pollinating butterflies. Economical uses of stinging nettles are the ability to produce yarn, cloth, rope and paper from the fibers. Furthermore, nettles can be found as colorant or vegetarian rennet in our food, and it can be made into a natural insecticide and soil improver. 
The most positive and practical part of nettles to me is their nutrient value and, yes, their edibility. After cooking, the leaves are not spiky anymore, and - while saving expenses at the supermarket - you are weeding some nettles from your garden at the same time! The herb contains several vitamins, of which mainly vitamin C, and it is a rich source of iron, calcium and fibers. A traditional important use of nettles is their depurating and detoxifying quality. In medieval times it was therefore used especially for (vernal) fatigues and in spring cures. So now is exactly the time to try this plant out for ourselves! 

I will share with you my first nettle soup experience. To find good edible nettles, pick them in spring; the fresh, green plants are not yet affected by diseases or insects. Also be careful to pick them from a clean place: no dog fields, near cars or where herbicides have been sprayed. Pick the nettles with gloves or with even more protection, because they are able to sting through cotton or plastic bags.
For our soup: pick a lot, they shrink like spinach when you cook them. At home, fry onions and garlic in plenty of butter. Add the washed leaves of the nettle (caution is asked when picking the leaves from the plants here!) and pour water and vegetable/herb broth over it. After a couple of minutes cooking, blend it, add some cream and season it as you like with salt, pepper, herbs and/or lemon. Another tasty variation is to add chickpeas before you blend the soup. Serve it with home-made croutons or Parmesan cheese. An even easier way to use nettle is to pour boiling water on the fresh leaves and drink it as tea. I bet you will approach our stingy friend differently from now on! 

Bibliography: Verhelst, Geert. 2010. Groot handboek geneeskrachtige planten (4e druk), Wevelgem: BVBA MANNAVITA, pp. 563-7.

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