If you've ever wandered bare-legged into a patch of them, you're probably not a fan. But take the bite out of one of nature's meanest greens, and the stinging nettle is more pleasure than pain.
It has been a culinary staple in Europe for centuries – risotto in Italy, soup in Britain, its leaves wrapped around cheeses in France – but it is only recently that the wild plant is finally getting its due in North America.
An introduced species to North America, the stinging or common nettle (Urtica dioica) is native to Europe, Asia and parts of Africa, where it has been used in folk medicine, agriculture – as winter greens for livestock – and for its tough fibres. But here's the rub: It's The nasty thing is covered, top to bottom, with sticky, sharp, hairs and, at the base of each, is one tiny, painful, drop of formic acid, the same stuff that gives ants their bite.
Once the sting is gone, however – and cooking and drying it will do that – its flavour is reminiscent of spinach and it's chock full of vitamins. We dug up chefs who are deliciously taming this wild green.
Summer Green Soup – À la table des Jardins Sauvages, Saint-Roch-de-l'Achigan, Que.
When not in the kitchen or running their shop, chef Nancy Hinton conducts foraging excursions around her bucolic property, northeast of Montreal. Chef Hinton tells us, "We often have stinging nettle on our menu. We also sell it fresh in season and dried off-season." The toothsome green is in Hinton's Summer Green Soup, providing texture and body. "Its taste is subtle – like spinach – but soft and mineral, and I almost always pair it up with something more flavourful. [It] brings green, body, depth."
Stinging Nettle Purée – Hawksworth Restaurant, Vancouver
Chef de cuisine Kristian Eligh purchases stinging nettles from Mikuni Wild Harvest, a supplier that specializes in sourcing wild and rare products. "I suffered the sting of brushing up against them multiple times as a child," she says. "I was introduced to them as an ingredient while doing my apprenticeship, and remain enamoured by the fact that, treated properly, the plant that used to sting me can be transformed into something completely delicious." Here, nettles are puréed and made part of a dish of slow-cooked elk loin with rye dumpling, braised cabbage, bacon and juniper jus.
Stinging Nettle Jus with Crispy Skinned Chicken – Aura Restaurant at Nita Lake Lodge, Whistler, B.C.
Foraging guide and chef Paul Moran is a fan. "Nettles are one of the most commonly used wild plants in Europe and North America, and I enjoy cooking with them for several reasons: their flavour – very similar to kale, with a slightly minty aftertaste – their health benefits, and their colour." Chef Moran adds puréed nettles to a chicken jus for a rich, colourful sauce.
Stinging Nettle 'Saag' with Gnuddi – The Atlantic on Dundas, Toronto
Chef Nathan Isberg likes to go a bit rogue, so it's only fitting the chef who eschews menus, and big suppliers, serves this wild green – although he's also rather particular about when. It tends to be a spring and early-summer thing, not because they aren't still tasty or available at other times, but rather, as he delicately puts it, "This late in season they become rather … laxative." Right then, you've been warned. "I do a saag-esque curry and serve with gnuddi. I also do a variation of the traditional Portuguese caldo verde soup."
Duck Egg, Nettle, New Potato – The Grove, Toronto
The British know a thing or two about stinging nettles. They were early adopters of an if-you-can't-beat-it-eat-it philosophy. Although he has lived in Canada since age five, British expat chef Benjamin Heaton maintains strong ties with the cuisine of his motherland. Flirting with molecular gastronomy, one perfectly poached duck egg floats in a light, new-season potato broth infused with nettle juice, garnished with nettle emulsion, baby leek relish, new potato crisps, brown butter and malt vinegar-powder. "It's poured table-side. Very popular and earthy," he says.