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Flash in the Pan

Meddling with nettles



Mountain Girl and Chef Boy Ari hiked up Wood’s Gulch. The snow was gone from the forest, but an icy hardpack remained on the trail, compressed by a winter’s worth of footsteps, along with the scattered remains of very much dog product, melting like puddles of forgotten ice cream.

“There’s a nice patch,” said Mountain Girl, pointing to an area of standing, brown brush, about 10 feet from the creek. She crawled fearlessly into the thicket of last year’s dead—yet still spiny—growth, and began delicately snipping away at the 6-inch-tall new growth of nettles poking innocently from the forest floor.

“Innocent” being the operative word. At this point, we were still innocent to the concept of sado-botany.

Stinging nettles, also known as Urtica dioica, resemble mint in how the leaves are paired opposite a central stalk. But unlike mint, nettles are covered with hollow spines that will inject an irritant into your skin.

But if you pick them carefully—ideally with scissors and gloves—and steam them for two or three minutes, the stingers wilt, and you are left with a green and satisfying meal that is high in pretty much everything, including amino acids, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, chlorophyll and B-complex vitamins, to name a few. And they are very tasty. I call them Mountain Spinach.

Nettles have long been used around the world for the treatment of a multitude of ailments, from high blood pressure to arthritis, allergies, urinary tract infection, baldness and even—get this—pain relief! Evidently, when applied to a painful place, nettle stings will relieve that pain—or at least distract you from it. Recent scientific studies have confirmed many such “folk” uses of nettles, including the suppression of blood pressure, blood sugar level, joint inflammation and prostate swelling.

The tender shoots can be harvested in springtime, and the tops of the plants—where new growth occurs—continue to be tender until they flower in early summer. So between now and then is your window to harvest bagloads to eat, and to store in the freezer. Nettles can also be stored dry.

Don’t worry about decimating the nettle patch in your harvesting zeal. For one, it’s almost impossible. And if you did, the hikers who follow you will thank you for sparing them the sting. And nettles aren’t native to the U.S. anyway—so to hell with ’em!

Doing a little Internet nettle-surfing, I found a page devoted to sado-botany, full of advice on how to use—and how not to use—nettles in the act of playfully torturing your tied-up partner. The discussion included some very interesting questions, such as, “I like to play mind games with my partner. Are there plants that look like stinging nettles but actually don’t sting?” and “I like to play mind games with my partner. Are there plants that look soft and tickly but actually sting like nettles?”

This web page also warns of the New Zealand nettle, which is strong enough to kill a horse—not recommended for sado-botany. The page also offers some amazing close-up photographs of the stingers, which look like devilish little hypodermic needles, and a discussion of how they sting:

“The walls of the hairs are composed of silica, i.e. natural glass, and contact breaks the fragile tip of the hair. The hair is sharp enough to push into the skin, while at the same time, the venom, stored under pressure in the expanded base, travels up the hair and is injected into the skin through the broken tip.”

Yes, the sado-botany page had more information than I cared to believe was out there about nettles, including some really stellar links to other sites with scientific, nutritional and culinary advice on Mountain Spinach.

Uh oh. Here comes Mountain Girl, and it looks like she has fashioned a pair of handcuffs from the fibrous stems of Mountain Spinach. I guess I’m not the only one who’s been reading up on sado-botany.

Before I pretend to run away (slowly enough to let her catch me), here is a recipe for Mountain Spinach that packs a distinctly Asian punch. I call it:

Noodles ’n’ Nettles
While boiling a pot of water, prepare a pan with chopped bacon in a little oil (or just oil, if you don’t do bacon). Once the bacon is cooked, remove it from the pan and save for later. Fry some slivered carrots in the hot oil. When they start to brown, lower the heat and add chopped garlic and onion and a shot of vinegar (not balsamic—ideally cider vinegar from a jar of pickled peppers). Pour 1/4 cup of oyster sauce into the pan. Stir, and then drop in a hefty handful of nettles, and the cooked bacon bits, and a 1/4 cup of water so it steams. Stir, put a lid on it. Meanwhile, cook and drain the noodles, rinse them briefly with warm water, and toss them into the nettle stir-fry. Season with soy sauce.

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