Scraping by on stinging nettles

As a child, I avoided these prickly greens like the plague -- now I'm foraging for them to feed my family

By Felisa Rogers
Published March 5, 2011 12:01PM (EST)
Stinging nettles and meatballs
Stinging nettles and meatballs

Stinging nettles have been the enemy for as long as I can remember. Nettles grow lush and huge here in Deadwood, Ore. When I was a child they were an impediment, tall sentinels blocking the path to the creek. A sting raises a cluster of pink welts like spider bites, which linger for hours.

Nettles lose their sting when exposed to concentrated heat, and they are edible and extremely nutritious, being rich in vitamins A and C, as well as potassium, iron, magnesium and calcium. Supposedly you can use the plants to treat a huge variety of ailments including hay fever and arthritis. My friend Kamari tries to convince me that nettles are God's gift to hippies, but I've always been dubious about cooking them, for obvious reasons. However, our return to Deadwood has been marked by hard times, and scrounging is the name of the game. I started foraging for wild mushrooms, but as our resources dwindle, I'm getting more creative. Stinging nettles it is.

My plan for dinner tonight is spaghetti with beef meatballs. Our neighbors very kindly gave us six or seven packages of ground beef when they slaughtered their bull, and the meat is delicious -- flavorful and tender. For our vegetable course we will have the dubious stinging nettles, sautéed in white wine. In the interest of making this sound less obnoxiously twee, I should mention that I found the meatball recipe in "Playboy." Go figure.

I start down the driveway at dusk, wearing work gloves and carrying kitchen scissors and a colander. My neighbor Alan pulls up in his red Dodge truck and dumps a load of hay for his cows.

"Looking for nettles?" he asks, noting my scissors and gloves. Evidently this activity is normal to the average Deadwoodian.

After some poking about, I find clusters of baby nettles growing at the edges of the pasture. At this time of year, early March, the plants are small and purple-green -- the color is reminiscent of a reptile. I snip, grasp the felled plant with my scissors and transport it to the colander without contact. Even though I'm wearing gloves, my childish fear lingers and I can't bring myself to touch the leaves; with these gingerly methods it takes me five or 10 minutes to fill the colander. I don't mind. It's beautiful and still at this hour of evening, as the sky fades pink above the saw-toothed hills.

When I return to the kitchen, the spaghetti sauce is bubbling on the stove, infusing the drafty wooden house with a comforting aroma: It may not be that warm inside, but at least it smells warm. I started the simple tomato sauce two days ago (I find spaghetti sauce is always better the next day), so that part of the meal is practically done.

I've never made meatballs before, but they go off without a hitch. I mix the beef with eggs we bought from my Aunt Coretta, who lives down the road, and two diced slices of white bread from the loaf Rich baked yesterday. The recipe calls for pickled peppers and I don't have any, so I substitute a couple of Herdez chipotle chiles. I stick the meatballs in the oven at 400 degrees, and 15 minutes later they're done, juicy and tangy from the chiles.

Of course it's the nettles I'm really worried about. I run some water over the colander, but because I don't actually want to touch them, my rinse job isn't exactly thorough. I dump the contents into a hot, oiled cast iron pan and watch with a kind of doubtful interest as the nettles soften, changing from the purple-green color to a brighter, more uniform green. I can still see the tiny stinging hairs. I stir vigorously.

When it comes time to actually taste one, I hesitate. Maybe just a little longer, I think, and prod the ropey mass of greens for the umpteenth time. I turn down the burner, stalling for time. Three or four minutes pass before I actually  get up the nerve to touch one. I poke at it. Wait. No sting. I pinch a green between my fingers and close my eyes.

Maybe it's the aftershadow of the sting, but the nettles taste strangely alive -- fibrous and tingly, with a hard-to-articulate flavor. Nutty is as close as I can get. When we sit down for dinner, Rich takes a bite and declares them "pretty good." When asked to elaborate, he says he thinks they're good but not as good as regular greens. I'm inclined to think the nettles are just as good as regular greens, or they would be if I'd cooked them a little longer. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I feel my lips tingle with the inkling of a sting.

All in all, the dinner is a success. Especially when you consider the cost -- thanks to the generosity of my neighbors, the total bill is about $3. When we're finished, enough sauce remains for another meal, so I figure our dinner comes out to 85 cents per person. Sweet. Now I just need to figure out how to make my own glass of red wine.

Felisa Rogers

Felisa Rogers studied history and nonfiction writing at the Evergreen State College and went on to teach writing to kids for five years. She lives in Oregon’s coast range, where she works as a freelance writer and editor.

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