You have to respect a plant that fights back. Try handling common nettle any other way than “with extreme caution” and you’re liable to wind up in a heap of pain, so immediate and piercing is its sting.
Despite this prickly fact, human beings have a long history of eating nettles, taming the ubiquitous weed by blanching it before cooking or simply soaking it in water to remove the pain-causing chemicals.
Locally, many chefs find Urtica dioica‘s underlying sharpness and vivid emerald hue more than worth the trouble. “Nettles are one of the first signs of spring,” explains food preservation expert and longtime forager Will Horowitz. “You can find them in just about every woodland area surrounding New York City.” For an upcoming special at his innovative East Village barbecue joint, Ducks Eatery, Horowitz will use nettles he picks in Westchester for a verdant broth prepared with smoked littleneck clams and cultured cream.
A versatile and fleeting ingredient, the nettle has a flavor some compare to spinach — only nuttier and more floral. The plant’s young leaves are reserved for cooking, while leaves from older ones are generally dried and turned into tea. Pasta is another popular vehicle for the leafy green, and right now you’ll find it at two Manhattan newcomers — Pasquale Jones on Mulberry Street, where it’s woven into plates of sausage-packed rigatoni, and Spring Street’s Café Altro Paradiso, where nettle makes an appearance in the ricotta mezzaluna. At New American shoebox Virginia’s, in Alphabet City, the herbaceous perennial brightens up risotto with parmesan and morels.
Chef Joaquin Baca, owner of Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Star, loves nettles for their “pepper kick” and because they’re “one of the first things we get to use that don’t grow buried in the ground.” He uses them to stain flat tagliatelle noodles green for a dish that’s downright aggressive in its spirit of spring-y abbondanza. Twirl your fork around the plate and you’ll encounter green garlic, spring onions, and smoked overwintered carrots — all turbocharging a lush rabbit ragù.
Bakers get in on the fun, too. “Perhaps it’s because the goat likes to eat raw nettles in the pasture that her milk tastes so good in the bread,” says Zach Golper of the tangy dairy he ferments with wheat to make Bien Cuit’s wild nettle bread, a yeasty teardrop-shaped loaf laced with dried nettle powder, which turns parts of the hardy crust a forest green.
Given their limited availability, nettles don’t stay on menus for very long. “Through the end of May” was the most common answer we received. At Bien Cuit, find nettle bread on the menu through Memorial Day. That should certainly take the sting out of the start of New York City’s humid season.