Spring is definitely coming, despite our recent winter weather experience. Crocuses have been blooming for several weeks now, and red currant buds look like they are about to burst. Swans and geese have been showing up in the fields as they pass through on their annual migrations northward.
During winter months, kale or home grown sprouts are the primary source of fresh greens for locavores (people who eat only locally grown food, as much as possible). Here in Whatcom County, though, early spring brings the promise of one of my favorite fresh greens - stinging nettles (Urtica dioica and the closely related Urtica urens).
Stinging nettles grow wild in damp, shady woods, and can reach several feet high. For many people, stinging nettles conjure up memories of nasty burning sensations caused by brushing against the nearly invisible spines or flowers of this otherwise lovely green plant.
Nettles' sting comes from sharp silicate-bearing, hair-like structures on the leaves that actually shoot irritating substances into your skin like a hypodermic needle. Unlike plants which cause reactions for only some people, nettle stings affect virtually everyone who touches them.
However, when picked fresh before they start blooming, nettle leaves are a healthy spring tonic and a nutritional powerhouse. They are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium. They also have a lot of protein, making them a great ingredient for vegetarians and vegans. Cooking breaks down the chemical that causes the stinging sensation on skin, so cooked nettles are perfectly safe to eat.
Nettles have been used for many years as a gentle, natural diuretic, which can help flush toxins from the body. They also have anti-inflammatory actions that can help relieve pain from arthritis and rheumatism. Nettles have been used to relieve hay fever. Herbalists consider nettles a blood cleanser, helping to reduce blood pressure and lower the heart rate. They can promote prostate health as well. Scientific research has supported the effects of these traditional uses of nettles. For these and other reasons, nettles are frequently included in commercial herbal cleanse formulas.
Pregnant women, people on blood thinners and people with diabetes should avoid eating nettles. Consult with your doctor if you are taking other medications.
Tender leaves at the top of the plant are the best part of nettles to eat, and spring is the best time to pick them. Wear gloves when you pick nettles, and wash the gloves before you handle them afterward.
I wear rubber gloves or put my hands in plastic bags when working with nettles raw in the kitchen. Some say rinsing the nettles in cold water can help reduce the potential for getting stung, but again I haven't tested that personally. Tongs can be useful for managing nettles while cooking.
If you get stung (which I usually do at least once a year), you'll likely feel an uncomfortable burning sensation that can take a few hours to go away. Suggested remedies to lessen the sting are aloe vera gel, baking soda mixed in water to make a paste, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, mud or fern juice (from ferns which supposedly grow near nettles, though I don't know what kind of fern is best to use). I've never personally tried any of these methods, though. To me, nettle stings are annoying but not all that painful, so I just wait for them to wear off naturally.
Nettles have a strong flavor that some people love and others only tolerate, so I like to cook nettles with other ingredients to blend the flavors. Nettles can be steamed, or sautéed in butter. Be sure to cook them until they are completely wilted. This isn't a dish to sauté quickly. Fresh nettles leaves can also be put directly into boiling water to make nettles tea.
In the recipe below, which I created a few years ago, they are sautéed with fresh mushrooms. There's something very satisfying about enjoying a walk in the woods, bringing home some leaves, and enjoying their delicious flavor for dinner. However, if you don't feel comfortable harvesting them yourself in the wild, you're likely to find some available to purchase at the early spring Farmers Markets.
Speaking of Farmers Markets, be sure to visit the last of the monthly winter Bellingham Farmers Market on Saturday, March 15, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at Depot Market Square (on Railroad between Chestnut and Maple streets in downtown Bellingham). The regular weekly schedule for the main season will resume in April. Great food, good fun, and a community experience for the whole family - all in one place.
NOTE: There was an error in last week's column about Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards and their new flour product. I reported that they use pesticides and herbicides. That was not correct. They use only herbicides and fungicides - no pesticides. Richard Holmquist says: "We only use fungicides to combat Eastern Filbert Blight and herbicides at the base of the tree (as needed) to keep the suckers and grass knocked down. We never spray anything directly on the nuts-this is all done well before the nuts are ripe and harvested." My apologies to the Holmquists for the error.
SAUTÉED MUSHROOMS AND NETTLES
2 tablespoons butter (Breckinridge Farm, Everson)
8 large button mushrooms, sliced (Twin Sisters Mushroom Farm, Acme)
1 pound nettles leaves (wildcrafted at Gude Erth Farm, Lummi Island)
1/4 cup white wine (Legoe Bay Winery, Lummi Island)
Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat (a little cooler than normal sauté temperature so nettles will cook thoroughly). Sauté the sliced mushrooms for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the nettles leaves and wine, cover the pan, and cook for another 3-5 minutes until nettles are completely wilted.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or email@example.com. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.