Wild Spring

Nettles (Urtica dioica), a vibrant spring medicinal, can be delicious in the kitchen

Recipe and photos by Anna Marie Beauchemin
Clinical Herbalist, East Bay Herbals

Well known for their fine stinging hairs, nettles may have risen to fame due to the pain caused by their prickly leaves. But hidden below their tough exterior lies a vibrant spring medicinal that shows their true nature. Used throughout Europe as a classic spring tonic, nettles have been revered through the ages as a valuable plant healer. One of the first herbaceous plants to emerge in spring, they offer a burst of rich, green, nutrient-dense foliage that is beneficial for humans and wildlife alike.

In the kitchen, nettles are used for their flavor and rich mineral composition. When cooked, the prickly hairs are denatured, rendering the leaves edible and delicious in a variety of dishes. Take special care when handling the leaves and stems of this stinging plant, and protect your hands by wearing gloves!

Traditionally used by herbalists for their cleansing, detoxifying, and antihistamine properties, nettles make for an ideal springtime tonic following the cold and dormant months of winter. Taken most often as a tea, nettle leaves can be enjoyed fresh (after cooking or steeping) or dried and saved for the months ahead.

Where To Find Nettles

While nettles grow wild in many parts of Northern California and beyond, I rarely encourage collecting plants from their natural habitats. Plants (and animals) are vital components of their ecosystems, and without proper training on how to sustainably harvest them, you run the risk of damaging the ecosystem you’re collecting from. Instead, I choose to support local herb growers or grow my own.

I purchase my nettles from local growers such as the Sonoma County Herb Exchange. Based in Sebastopol, the Herb Exchange is run by the Sonoma County Herb Association, a small nonprofit that promotes and encourages the mindful and sustainable use of medicinal herbs throughout the Bay Area. Started in 1999, the Exchange is a collective of local growers, herbalists, and medicine makers joined by their love and reverence for the plant world. Supporting the Herb Exchange is a wonderful option for folks looking to acquire fresh herbs in the Bay Area. Other local growers include Steadfast Herbs in Pescadero and Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley.

Note: The information presented is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, and should not be used as medical advice. If you have a medical concern, please seek out a qualified health care professional, and always consult your physician before adding herbal supplements into your diet, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, or on medication.

Lattice-Top Nettle Tart

Welcome spring with this simple yet elegant preparation of nettles, which I learned to make while working with an herbalist in France. The recipe reflects her provincial take on this classic wild-food-inspired dish.

Makes one 9-inch pie

¼–½ pound rinsed nettle leaves and tops
¼–½ cup apple cider vinegar
1 recipe of your favorite double-crust pie dough (I like the basic pie dough recipe in the Joy of Cooking)
2–3 tablespoons butter (or cooking oil of choice)
2 or 3 small shallots, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped herbs such as thyme, savory, or tarragon (optional)
¼ cup grated Gruyère or Emmental cheese
¼ cup goat cheese, crumbled
1 egg, lightly beaten

Wearing rubber gloves, pick the leaves off the nettle stems and place into a large bowl with water to cover. Stir in the apple cider vinegar and let nettles soak for 15 to 20 minutes.

While the nettles are soaking, make your pie dough and let it chill.

Strain and rinse nettles thoroughly in a colander. Leave in colander to dry.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat and cook minced shallots and garlic for 2 to 3 minutes. Wearing your gloves, add the rinsed and drained nettles to the pan, stirring often as they cook. Add salt, pepper, and desired herbs and allow nettles to cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until fully wilted and cooked through. Remove from heat and let cool.

Preheat oven to 425°. Roll out half of the pie dough and use it to line your pie pan. Also roll out the top crust or make a lattice to cover.

Layer a third of the Gruyère and goat cheese into the bottom of the prepared pie shell. Layer half of the nettles over the cheese. Then layer in another third of the cheese, the remaining nettles, and finally the remaining cheese. Place lattice over pie. If using a full top crust instead, add slits for ventilation. Brush the top of the pie with beaten egg and bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Let cool slightly and serve warm.

Anna Marie Beauchemin is a trained clinical herbalist, educator, and writer based in Martinez, California. She works throughout the San Francisco Bay Area offering herbal consultations, workshops, and trainings. She loves writing about the intersection between the culinary and medicinal worlds and creating seasonally relevant herbal recipes. Learn more at eastbayherbals.com.