Foraging with Russ Cohen, Part I: Stinging Nettles

Posted on April 7, 2012

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Shortly before receiving the delightful news of my garden plot assignment last Sunday, I was out scouring the forest floor of a nearby reservation site for stinging nettles. Let me backtrack.

Dried stinging nettlesI met Russ about a year and a half ago at a Waltham Fields’ potluck. Without knowing who he was, we struck up a nice conversation about the use of gardening and agricultural education as a means of changing diets, lifestyles, and food systems. At the time, I knew him to be an environmentalist working for the state’s Fish and Game department who enjoyed foraging for wild edibles. Little did I know this man was a published forager extraordinaire.

We all float onForaging is an entirely new hobby for me. Rummaging through the early spring garden for overwintered delectables, which I have definitely done, is sort of similar but certainly not the same thing. Being the kind man that he is, Mr. Cohen offered to take me out to do some foraging both that fall and last spring, but I was just too busy. With my spring schedule downsized from last year, I contacted Russ a month ago to see when he would be heading out again and if I could tag along. Lucky for me, he said he was planning to forage stinging nettles, a plant that interested me because I had read that it is one of several plants used to make vegetable rennet. While I did not use the nettles I harvested this time around to make rennet, it is definitely on my to-do list.

Stinging nettle close-upRuss explained that stinging nettles, a native perennial of Europe, are one of the first wild edibles to come up in the spring. He suggested picking their tops while they are young, about 3-5 inches high, in early to mid-April for the best-tasting greens. Due to the heat wave we experienced in the Northeast this March, he said they came up about a week earlier than what he normally observes.

Patch of nettlesNettles like rich, loamy soil, so they can often be found on forest floors near a water source like a running stream or pond, in areas with full sun or partial shade. They can also commonly be found around the edges of pastures and farm fields and buildings, giving you one more reason to kindly ask your local organic farm if it is okay to forage around their property. When you are ready to go out for them, be sure to have a pair of scissors, a bag for your harvest, and a pair of gardening gloves in tow; I didn’t find the sting to be that bad, so I didn’t wear gloves while harvesting, but it was nice to have them with me, just in case. Curled dock is a well-known antidote to the nettle sting, and can often be found close to nettle patches. Just crush, tear up, and rub some dock leaves on stung skin for relief from irritation.

Stinging nettlesThough stinging nettles are perennial plants, it is essential that, like foraging for any other wild edibles, they be collected sustainably. To do this, only snip the first inch or so- the apical tip- of the nettle to encourage axillary growth, resulting in a more productive plant.

Jar of dried nettlesIf there is any reason to forage some stinging nettles for yourself, it should be that they are so damn good for you! Nettles contain high amounts of vitamins A, B, C, potassium, calcium, and iron. Applied heat, during cooking or drying, converts the histamine-inducing formic acid in the plants (the stinging agent in the plant’s trichomes) into protein, which renders it painless and leaves you with one of the highest known sources of protein in a leafy green vegetable… about 7% protein by weight! Furthermore, stinging nettles have been revered as a plant with medicinal properties for centuries. A diuretic known to reduce inflammation, nettle has been used to treat hay fever, arthritis, skin conditions (hives, eczema), anemia, and much more.

Big patch of nettlesIf you still aren’t sold on them, stinging nettles are also a source of fiber for fabrics that are even softer and silkier than their flax and hemp counterparts. Cotton in still king in the realm of fabric goods, but its production accounts for nearly a quarter of all global pesticide use (yowzah!); stinging nettles, requiring little to no chemical use, are a more ecologically-friendly alternative to such intensively-farmed crops.

Jar of nettlesIn addition to the simple pleasure that foraging can bring an individual, the new traditions that may stem from the practice, and the health benefits of eating foraged plants, wild edibles, much like dumpster-dive treasures, can be enjoyed as a “freegan” food. Thin wallets and lacking bank accounts rejoice!

Nettles in the spinnerNettles can be prepared in a number of ways. To steam them for eating or freezing, first wash them thoroughly in a bowl of cold water. With tongs, transfer the nettles to a small pot and steam for five minutes; the water clinging to the nettles from washing is all that is needed to steam them up. The water remaining in the pot from steaming, called “pot likker,” can be drunk immediately or, if in large enough quantities, can be saved to be used in soup. For longer-term storage, treat nettles as you would other leafy greens: transfer cooked nettles into freezer bags and put in the freezer until you are ready to use them. Nettles can be used in any dish calling for cooked spinach, such as spanikopita, atypical pesto, casseroles, pasta dishes, quiche, or soups. It tastes quite similar to spinach, but also has a bit of a split pea flavor going on.

Drying nettlesAnother way to use these little green plants is to dry them for stinging nettle tea. After washing and salad-spinning nettle tops, carefully separate leaves from stems using scissors. Dehydrate leaves and stems at 95 degrees F until crisp, which took my machine about 6-7 hours for the leaves only (I decided to just steep some tea with all of the partially-dried stems so I didn’t have to keep the dehydrator on). Store dried nettles in airtight containers until ready for use.

Steeping nettle leavesI found that steeping the leaves/stems for about 10 minutes in hot water makes for a green-tinted beverage with a vegetal flavor reminiscent of sencha tea. Suggested ratios are 4-6 teaspoons dried leaves to 8 ounces of hot water.

Russ Cohen's book coverAfter our short and sweet foraging adventure, Russ asked if I was interested in purchasing his book, Wild Plants I Have Known… and Eaten, a compact guidebook on wild foods found throughout most of New England. Of course I said yes. It has information on the plants themselves, the history of their use, their usual hiding spots, and ways to prepare them into delicious dishes and drinks.

Further proving Mr. Cohen’s righteousness is his commitment to land stewardship. Not only an active participant in the happenings of several conservation and agricultural organizations, Russ donates all proceeds from book sales to the Essex County Greenbelt Association, a group that has been working to protect farmland, wildlife habitats, and scenic landscapes in Essex County since 1961.

Quite the fella if you ask me!

DucksRuss will be leading an early evening foraging adventure at Waltham Fields this June; check out the farm’s event calendar and web page for more details.

Information on stinging nettles was acquired from Russ Cohen himself, his book Wild Plants I Have Known… and Eaten, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.