When most people think about "superfoods", they only consider the cultivated celebrities like goji berries, blueberries, wheat grass and other plants requiring care, attention & time. However, if you live near a woods with moist soil or a stream, you likely have unlimited access to one of Botanical Wonders of the World: Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica).
Nettles are robust weeds that grow with vigor, even when harvested by heavy foraging. A nettle patch that has claimed a piece of ground will come back year after year for more nettle-y goodness. The spiny, stinging outer layer protects a tasty green with nutritional values that rival (& eclipse) other Health Food Kings like spinach and kale. Luckily, to eat nettles you do not have build the esophagus strength of a farmer from Dorset (which hosts an annual raw nettle eating competition). A light 5-minute steaming makes the nettle greens gentle and palatable, with a slightly rough texture and a nutty taste.
I like nettles because they have spunk, because I get to wander in the forest to collect them, and because they do not taste bitter like kale and some spinach varieties. However, their hairy cooked texture is not so delectable for me. Solution: Nettle Smoothies.
Step 1: A Question of Balance
In my experience, cooked nettles give a smoothie a nutty, earthy taste. You can enhance this flavor with ginger, raisins and other gathered wild edibles like common plantain. You can balance it by adding tart fruit like apples or raspberries and citrus juice. I go for both. I have yet to try a heavy raspberry batch, but they would be a good seasonal pair with the nettles in mid-June through July.
Ingredients (for roughly 1/3 gallon of smoothie):
- 1 quart or more of packed fresh nettles
- 1 apple
- 2 bananas (or 2-3 cups of raspberries if available)
- Ice and Water as needed
- Honey to taste (I stir it in after blending)
- Juice from 1 or 2 lemons/limes (depending on your citrusy pleasure)
- 1 tsp+ of ginger
- 2 cups of lightly packed plantain
- 1/2 cup of flax seed
Step 2: Nettlenomicon
When you go out to the woods to harvest nettles, you have two options. Either wear gloves and feel a slight tingle in your fingers as you pick, or go bare-handed and feel the full stinging sensation. I have done both. The pain reminds me of Novocaine right before you go numb. There is folkloric suggestion that the sting increases circulation and relieves joint pain, but little "hard" evidence in support.(More info can be found at the wiki page for Stinging Nettle)
Either way you choose to harvest, the best place to find nettles is near streams and in other moist areas in the woods. They look like hairy, large mint plants (see picture 2). If you are in doubt, rub the stem between your fingers. A mild stinging = success. The ideal harvest time is between late March and late June, before the nettle flowers. A small patch of about 25 sq ft. will be enough to provide smoothie materials throughout the growing season.
Once you find your nettle patch, try to stay along the periphery. The most nutritious part of the vegetable are its tender young leaves near the top, so pluck off the stem beneath the second or third leaf pair. This will allow the two buds below your cut to both sprout new nettle tops for you to harvest next week. Like a Superfood Hydra. Once you feel like you have enough (about a quart or so), you are ready to make smoothies.
Step 3: Steamin Your Greens
Gather the plantain if you choose (it will add some spicy bitterness). See photo 3 for help in identification.
Back in the kitchen, you first need to steam the nettles. There are many ways to do this. My method: get a medium to large pot and fill with an inch or two of water. Fill a colander or other strainer which fits inside this pot with your nettles. Put the nettle-full colander inside the pot. Set the pot on medium high heat until the nettles cook down and look somewhat shriveled.
While steaming the greens, chop the apples, bananas and prepare whatever other additions you have chosen for your Ultimate Health Smoothie. Fill the bottom of the blender with a half dozen ice cubes, some water or juice and then throw the rest of the ingredients into the blender - from soft to firm. Blend until smooth.
Step 4: Savor
Enjoy your smoothie! From the information I have found about nettles, this is probably one of the most nutrient packed smoothies you could possible consume. And because the it is partially to fully wild-crafted, it is cheaper than buying spinach or kale for a conventional Green smoothie.
Later in the season, I will have more wildcrafted smoothie recipes (for under-appreciated gems like Autumn Olive).
May all your weeds be edible.