The sting of the nettle (Urtica dioica) is caused by three substances contained in its tiny hollow needles: acetylcholine, histamine and 5 hydroxytryptamine. Contact with the needles can create an unpleasant burning, itchy skin rash in most people. The Latin verb urere means "to burn" from which the nettle derives its botanical name.
A common wild plant found throughout North America, Europe, North Africa and Asia, the nettle's sting has not deterred humans from gathering it for use as food, tea and medicine for thousands of years. Its fibers have been woven into cloth; today there is renewed interest in uses for this plentiful fiber.
Like many edible wild greens, the nettle plant is highly nutritious, containing valuable antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and an unusual quantity of protein for a leafy green. Brief cooking neutralizes the sting; thus the nettle becomes edible when steamed, sauteed, added to soups or other cooked dishes.
Nettles are now being cultivated by growers in California and I recently discovered some beautifully fresh ones at my local farmer's market. I prepared them using a simple technique which takes no more than five minutes and can be used to cook many varieties of leafy greens.
Cooking the Nettle:
Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a cast iron skillet, and using tongs or chopsticks to handle the nettles, pile them into the pan over a medium flame. Although an entire produce bag of nettles may look like a lot, they will quickly reduce in size as they heat. Keep adding more nettles until they all fit into the skillet, pressing them down gently with the tongs.
With a kitchen shears roughly cut the longer stems into manageable segments. Stir the nettles and sprinkle with a tablespoon or so of rice wine and a few tablespoons of water; the resulting steam will quickly complete the cooking process. By now the nettles will be tender and much reduced in volume. Immediately transfer them to a warm serving dish. Garnish with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.
"Grasping the nettle" means to confront a problem head on. Linguists posit that this expression is derived from the notion that one is less likely to get stung by the nettle if it is grasped firmly in the hand rather than handled timidly; this flattens the tiny needles making it less likely that they will puncture the skin and inject their irritants.