Let's forgive the Stinging Nettle -- an herbaceous weed currently popping up all over Southern California following our December rains -- for evolving those highly annoying tiny little hypodermic needles that give it its name. The poor plant has been unceremoniously ripped out of the ground for thousands of years to treat everything from madness to arthritis to asthma to "the female affliction." The stem fibers make both rope and fine, linen-like cloth. And it's also the base for vegetarian rennet in cheese making.
Second maybe only to hemp, the stinging nettle is one of the most useful -- and freely available -- invasive weeds in the state, though its recent renaissance is based on its versatility as a freely foraged food.
James Birch at Flora Bella Farm actually loves the stings ("I use it to treat my arthritis," he says), which turns out to be a good thing. As a small organic farmer (he's on 20 acres total) he chooses to farm with nature rather than against it. Weeds, many of which are eminently edible and nutritious, are an organic farm's fact of life. One that allows him to harvest a healthy secondary crop of wild edibles, Miner's lettuce, Lamb's Quarters, Purslane and yes, Stinging Nettles among them, which he provides to Pizzeria Mozza, Gjelina, and A.O.C., as well as at the Hollywood and Santa Monica farmers markets.
The nettle's sting comes from formic acid which is injected into the skin via the hollow hair-like needles. Simply brushing up against the nettle will produce a nasty rash. Thankfully the needles lose efficacy with wilting and cooking, allowing the user to benefit from its high protein -- more than almost every other green leaf out there -- and heavy nutrient density which includes vitamin A, several B's, lots of C and D and an abundance of minerals including calcium, iron (one of the richest plant sources), manganese, phosphorus, potassium, silicon and sulfur. Their taste is similarly rich -- green and grassy like spinach and heavily herbal.
Stinging nettles are commonly used to make tea (said to be great for asthma and allergy sufferers) and are the base for a verdant deep green winter and spring soup. Jaci Slotnik, a local private chef who interned at Flora Bella in 2009, still comes back to work at the Flora Bella stand as needed. Her current go-to nettle recipe is for savory pancakes.
"The recipe is very flexible," says Slotnik. "You can add bacon or herbs."
From: Jaci Slotnik, of Flora Bella Farm
Serves: about 4
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspooon sea salt
1 3/4 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups milk or water
3 Tablespoons butter or oil
1 cup fresh nettle leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup sliced scallions (or diced regular onion)
1 garlic clove, minced
1. Heat a pan over medium and saute garlic (and regular onion, if using). Set aside.
2. Mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl, and mix all liquid ingredients in a smaller bowl. Quickly mix the liquid ingredients into the dry mixture with a whisk until just moistened. Fold in nettles, scallion/onion, and garlic.
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3. For best results make batter the night before (so the batter can rest). Cook pancakes on a well seasoned cast iron or non-stick pan over medium low heat. Use about a 1/4 c. of batter per pancake. Enjoy with butter or sour cream and sprinkle with black pepper.
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