In the constant struggle to amend our sandy soil, I procured a bale of hay some years back to sprinkle over my agricultural lands at the end of the season. This was intended to seal in some of the good juices that normally leach out with winter snows and I hoped the hay would rot nicely, to be tilled into the dirt in the springtime to add more texture and water-absorption capacity.
The plan mostly worked, but what I didn't bank on was that the seeds of the nefarious Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) would impregnate my garden bed and send forth its prickly spawn each year. This plant is armored with hairs that contain an irritating poison and even a light brush against the skin causes an insect-like sting and subsequent rash and/or numbness that lasts a day. I find garden gloves too floppy for weeding, so I invariably yank out several of these prickly pests each season before my mind registers the enemy.
This year I decided on a counter-assault. My scheme was to not only yank out the nettlesome weed early on, but stuff it into my stockpot and eat it. I would be a Nettle Predator!
Armed with fashionable yellow dish washing gloves, a couture nettle entrapment bag and my trusty hunting hound, Martha, I went on the attack. I had previously consulted our home library, containing the complete works of the late Euell Gibbons and scanned the chapter in his book Stalking the Healthful Herbs (NY: David McKay, 1966) in which he devotes a entire chapter to the Common Stinging Nettle. Gibbons waxes devotedly about its healthful properties (vitamins A and C! protein!, chlorophyll! trace minerals!) and noted that the plants, if gathered before they flower, are a tender potherb that resemble spinach. The horrible nettle venom would be zapped in the cooking pot and provide a healthful and satisfying meal for the family.
Martha and I went forth and topped off every nettle we saw ringing our house and garden. I flung the lower extremities into the compost heap, where Euell told me they would add their high nitrogen content. Perfect. I would be eradicating a pestilent weed and foraging part of my supper in a delirious weeding/frugal feeding/garden composting tactical maneuver.
I hosed off the nettles outside and then stripped off the leaves and tops. These got swished around some more in a large stockpot of water and then placed in another large pot on the stove, where I snipped them up with kitchen shears. I didn't want to try anything fancy with my first batch of nettles, although Euell tempted me with Creamed Nettles and Nettle Pudding.
I covered the pot, brought everything to a satisfying rolling boil, and then simmered away for 20 minutes. The nettles seemed tender at the end and while the perfume wafting out from the pot had a slight medicinal scent, I was chortling as I dished out a couple of bowls of stewed nettles and topped each with a pat of butter and some salt and pepper for Dan and I to savor for lunch.
Foiled again! I chomped up a bite and found them to spinachy enough in flavor, but the texture was unpleasantly matted and coarse, sort of like munching on an Irish sweater. Or maybe an Irish setter. Something awful. The back of my throat started to feel scratchy, like I was getting a cold. Dan took a tentative mouthful and munched, but spat it out again quickly, asking me pointedly if I had read the recipe correctly.
Indignantly, I brought out Euell and showed him the Chapter of Nettle Rhapsody. Dan read it slowly, and then asked whether I had registered the sentence about only harvesting nettle plants that are less than a foot tall. Taller plants have gritty cystoliths that make them unpalatable. Oops. Cystoliths! This is one powerful plant-enemy. I remain vanquished by Nettles, but do plan another assault next Spring, much, much earlier.