Using and Growing Stinging Nettle

credit: Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook by Dina Falconi and Wendy Hollender

The name comes from the Latin urere, “to burn”, and refers to the stinging needle-like hairs on the plant that are filled with irritating chemicals, which are released whenever the plant is brushed.  Long sought as a medicine and food source, stinging nettle has also been used as a dye (yellow from the roots; yellow green from the leaves), compost and traditional insect repellent.

Nettles are a female tonic, full of vitamins, notably A and C, and minerals, especially iron, potassium, manganese and calcium; it also contains indoles (primarily histamine and serotonin) and large amounts of chlorophyll.

The strong and versatile fibers of stinging nettle have been used in Europe since pre-historic times for cordage and cloth.  Plants are processed commercially for extraction of chlorophyll, which is used as a coloring agent in foods and medicines.

Urtica dioica is high in antioxidants, is an astringent, diuretic, tonic herb that controls bleeding, clears toxins, and slightly reduces blood pressure and sugar levels.  Taken internally, the medical uses assist with anemia, hemorrhage (especially of the uterus), excessive menstruation, hemorrhoids, arthritis, rheumatism, gout, and skin complaints (especially eczema).  Externally, nettles may be used for arthritic pain, gout, sciatica, neuralgia, hemorrhoids, scalp and hair problems, burns, insect bites and nosebleed.

credit: La Tavola Marche

This herbaceous shrub grows all over the world today, though originated in the northern regions of Europe and Asia.  It’s presence is indicative of nitrogen-rich soil and blooms between June and September and usually reaches 2 – 4 feet high.  Nettles are the sole larval food plant for several species of butterfly and moth.  The whole plant, leaves, can be used.  When dried, the plant is 40 percent protein, rivaling cottonseed meal as a source of the vital nutrient.  As with any plant, it is important to have correct identification.  There are around 50 species of Urtica.  U. urens (annual nettle) and U. pilulifera (Roman Nettle) have similar properties to U. dioica.  However, the stinging hairs of some species contain substances toxic enough to cause death.

Harvest the whole plant for medicinal use as flowering begins in summer.  Dry in an area with good ventilation on screens or hung in bundles.  Dried leaves can be used in infusions, tinctures, liquid extracts, ointments and powders.  Young leaf tips can be cooked down like spinach.  Avoid using older leaves as they contain crystals of calcium oxalate that give a gritty texture, even after cooking.  Pick young leaf tips from plants less than 4 inches high, before they develop oxalate crystals.

Stinging nettles like moist, nitrogen-rich soil in sun or dappled shade.  You may propagate by either seed sown in spring, or by division in spring.  Cut 3 to 7 foot stands of nettles to the ground in summer to provide a second crop of new leaves.  Nettles spread easily, but can be controlled by pulling out the dormant yellow rhizomes.

credit: La Tavola Marche

Stinging Nettle Filled Ravioli Recipe with Butter & Sage
from La Tavola Marche

Make your own pasta or buy fresh sheets of pasta.
Make this filling as your dough is resting.
When nettle is young, clip it, wash

1 cup cooked nettle (boiled in salted water, drained, squeezed well)
salt in the 1/2 cup of sheep’s milk ricotta (you can try other cheeses you like as well.)
1/4 cup of grated Parmesan
squeeze of lemon juice
salt & pepper

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl.

Remember above all: the mixture/filling must not be wet -with a moist filling you will have difficulties closing the ravioli, with too much moisture inbetween the pasta sheets.

 To stuff your ravioli ~

Roll out a sheet of pasta to about an 1/8 of an inch thickness -the thinner the better.
Evenly space out small mounds of filling.
Lay another sheet of pasta over the top.
With your fingers gently smooth out any air bubbles.

Cut out ravioli – either squares with a pizza knife or ravioli cutter or a shot glass for circular ravioli. Most importantly making sure the sides are closed.

Ravioli with Butter & Sage

Once pasta is filled, throw into salted boiling water until they float to the top. Test one.
In a pan slowly melt a couple of tablespoons of butter & gently fry a handful of sage leaves for 1 – 2 minutes.
Raise the heat, toss in your cooked pasta with a bit of pasta water.
Season with salt & pepper & serve.
Ravioli freezes well: place in a single layer on a sheet pan, then transfer into zip lock bag.

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