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What's surprising about nettles isn't the sting at all

In Season: Nettles
by: Denise Farwell, Nettles are no stranger to the kitchen — their nutritional value has been appreciated for centuries. March is their peak month, and as Chef Troy MacLarty of Lovely Hula Hands knows, they make a swell frittata.

Nettles are the original super food. Eons before Jamba Juice, Cliff Bars and wheatgrass shots, nettles - their full name is stinging nettles - were consumed for their whopping 40 percent protein content. (You'd have to eat a sink full of kale to get the protein in one serving of nettles.)

A handful of nettles provides more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, as well as a plethora of minerals that nettles absorb, spongelike, from the soil.

Lovely Hula Hands chef Troy MacLarty calls nettles 'about the healthiest thing you can eat.'

Why the bum rap?

Sadly, nettles often are regarded as an unfriendly weed.

They do have an intimidating layer of hollow hairs that are similar in design to a hypodermic needle. When the hairs break off they emit formic acid, which, on bare flesh, causes a painful sting that can last from a few minutes to 24 hours. (Baking soda will neutralize the acid and mellow the uncomfortable sensation.)

Wear gloves or use tongs when handling raw nettles; once they're cooked the stinging stops.

Wild nettles grow best in moist, forest terrain, so the Pacific Northwest is an ideal breeding ground, and restaurants focused on seasonal, local cuisine take advantage.

Park Kitchen chef Scott Dolich sees nettles as 'the first harbinger of spring.' Currently he purées them to accompany sweetbread ravioli.

In North Portland, at Lovely Hula Hands, MacLarty uses nettles as the base for a frittata appetizer. He explains that nettles are one of the first greens to arrive as the frost melts. While they can grow into the summer, their consistency and flavor usually peak in March.

Both chefs obtain their nettles from Peak Forest Fruit, which specializes in foraging. Like mushrooms, nettles are usually hunted in the wild, although it is possible to cultivate them.

If you're lucky, like Roger Konka and Norma Crabens, proprietors of Springwater Farm in St. Helens, Ore., nettles will 'just show up' on their own.

The pair now sells wild nettles from their craggy property at the Hillsdale Farmers Market. They keep their booth stocked with copies of a favorite nettle frittata recipe from Alice Waters' 'Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook.'

While they may seem nouveau on a menu, nettles are a classic ingredient.

Long history in the kitchen

Nettle soup recipes were recorded in early English cookbooks and volumes of apothecary.

In 1653, herbalist Nicholas Culpepper, sometimes called the father of naturopathic medicine, wrote that stinging nettles 'consume the phlegmatic superfluities which winter has left behind.' Nettle tea still is considered nature's Benadryl, great for clearing the sinuses and postnasal drip.

Stinging nettles also are a homeopathic remedy for arthritis and urinary tract infections because they increase the flow of blood and urine. The silicon in nettles is said to promote hair growth.

To brew your own medicinal nettle tonic, boil a half-pound of nettles in two liters of water for 10 to 15 minutes (no need to measure, just fill a medium-sized pot).

Drain the now greenish-brown water into a pitcher and mix with the juice of a lemon (preferably a Meyer lemon, which are in season around the same time as nettles), and two to four tablespoons of sugar or honey.

The earthy brew is tasty and you'll immediately feel the clearing effects.

The Alberta Cooperative Grocery (1500 N.E. Alberta St., 503-287-4333) has particularly healthy-looking local nettles for $6.99 a pound. The co-op also offers customers nettle handling tips, nutritional information and recipes.

A few last reminders: Only use the nettle tops, the stems are so stringy they are sometimes woven into a fiber, and substitute nettles in any recipe that calls for spinach.

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Nettle frittata

(adapted by Springwater Farm

from 'Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook')

• 1 pound nettles

• 1 medium onion, thinly sliced

• 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

• 3 cloves garlic, minced

• 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano

• 1/4 cup young pecorino or Sardo

• 6 eggs, lightly beaten

• Salt and pepper

Wash the nettles thoroughly with gloves on. Sauté the onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add another tablespoon of olive oil and the garlic. Season with salt and cook another minute.

Add the nettles and turn the heat to high, cooking until nettles are wilted and most of the water they release has evaporated. Drain in a colander and then when cool, chop coarsely.

Mix the chopped nettles in a bowl with the cheese and 1/4 cup olive oil. Add the eggs, then salt and pepper to taste.

Warm the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet, and pour in the eggs and nettles mixture, cooking over medium-low until just set and starting to turn brown.

Slide the frittata onto a plate and then invert back into the pan.

Cook about 13 more minutes until done.