What's in Season: Nettles

Oh, that Mother Nature is such a trickster, shielding so many delights in thorns and needles, making us work to savor them. Or maybe it’s that she’s a teacher, imbuing patience and resourcefulness. The viewpoint may vary, but never the result. Think roses, pineapples, sea urchins…and, today, stinging nettles. The wild, and wildly healthy and tasty, plant emerges in early spring in moist woodlands, with its pointy, serrated leaves covered in tiny stinging hairs. A forager’s challenge, yes, but no match for a good pair of gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, and a thick bag or basket. Once home, just strip the leaves from the ribbed stem, rinse, then steam or gently simmer about five minutes, or quickly sauté. Whatever spinach can do, nettles can do better; their rich, vegetal flavor amps up soups and stews, underpins lighter vegetables like zucchini, and shines with tomato sauce, lemon, or cream.

Since I’m more comfortable in a warm kitchen than a moist woodland, I do my foraging at the greenmarket. Dan Petrilli, owner and chef at Haven (472 Bedford Rd, Pleasantville 914-747-4646; havenpleasantville.com), does the same. He treats nettles like that other spring harbinger, dandelion greens. “They have a similar flavor profile,” he says. “They tend to be bitter.” So he tames them in a sauté with sweet golden raisins as a bed for duck breast sauced with port wine, or blanches and purées them with caramelized onion to pair with asparagus and wild mushroom ravioli. “The nettles add another dimension, and nice color,” he notes. If the impulse strikes, he might deep-fry the leaves, as he does with spinach, for a bright, crisp multi-use garnish. Speed, though, is key all around. “Don’t overcook them, or they tend to get chewy,” he warns, advising no more than 15 seconds in a hot sauté pan.  Add some early-spring ramps, smoky bacon, or diced apple and you’ve got a seasonal delight. And if you’re really smitten, you can head off to Dorset, England, where the annual World Stinging Nettle Eating Championship will soon be in full swing.

Nettle and Golden Raisin Sauté
(Courtesy of Dan Petrilli, Haven)
(Serves 4)

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8 cups nettle leaves, washed and dried
¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup dry white wine  
2 Tbsp minced shallot
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, for sautéing                                                                                                                                        
salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste

In a small saucepan, simmer raisins in wine to rehydrate, about 10 minutes. Drain raisins, reserving wine. In a large sauté pan over medium flame, heat oil. Add shallots and rehydrated raisins, and sauté 3 to 4 minutes, until shallots are soft but not browned. Add nettles and salt and pepper. In 10 seconds, add reserved wine and lightly toss for about 5 seconds (wine will steam). Remove immediately onto plate, leaving liquid in pan.

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