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Seasonal Eats: Tame The Wild Stinging Nettles

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You won't find them commercially, but stinging nettles are starting to appear in farmer's markets and can be foraged locally in early Southern California springtime. They earned their name for tiny, hollow stinging hairs on their leaves and stems, which inject a mix of histamine and chemicals that produces a stinging sensation when you brush them against their tips.

If you choose to forage stinging nettles, the common practice is to wear gloves and use scissors to cut only the top 8" of non-flowering plants for collection. Wearing rubber gloves for washing and cutting the leaves off the stems is recommended as well, though the leaves mostly only have non-stinging hairs. Soaking nettles in water or cooking them will remove the stinging chemicals from the plant, allowing them to be handled and eaten, sting-free.

Stinging nettle has a flavor similar to spinach when cooked and is rich in Vitamins A and C, Iron, Potassium, Manganese and Calcium. Unlike spinach, nettles don't contain oxalic acid, which prevents absorption of many of the nutrients. Nettles are also high in protein for a leafy green, so it's an ideal choice for a vegan diet. Due to their sting, it's not advisable to eat them raw (though there is a raw nettle eating contest for those brave enough to try it), but they can be prepared much in the same way as steamed spinach.

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5 ways to use stinging nettles:

Blanche, purée and blend them into a pasta recipe: stinging nettle pasta with lemon pepper feta, or these colorful nettle gnudi.

Blend them into a delicious appetizer spread: nettle walnut pesto crostini or a garlicky nettle pesto to toss with pasta.

Mix them up with ricotta and any of your other favorite cheeses, chopped nuts, or bits of pancetta and use them as pasta stuffing: stinging nettle-filled ravioli.

Bake them into typical spinach dishes: spinach and nettles crustless spanakopita.

Cook them down into a vitamin-rich springtime soup: stinging nettles soup.