An Abundance of Nettles

Spring is the ideal time to forage for nettles.
Spring is the ideal time to forage for nettles.

Getting acquainted with the wild leafy greens of spring

written by Corinne Whiting

Gerald Gutierrez, executive chef at South Lake Union’s Astra Hotel, likens nettles to “the greens of the sourdough starter world.” The wild, leafy plant acts as a good vessel to pick up whatever natural ingredients you add to them, he says, plus they hold their greenness to work well in purées, stocks and so on.

He shares that nettles don’t have a distinctive flavor, per se. Instead, it’s more about the locality of the product and the pride involved with having foraged them for oneself. There are nutritional benefits that come along with eating them, too. They are rich in vitamin A, calcium and fiber. Indigenous people have long gathered stinging nettles to use for medicinal, ceremonial and culinary purposes.

Chef Gutierrez grew up in a close-knit family in Manila, Philippines, where they were accustomed to cooking with the freshest ingredients from backyard farmers. That mindset stuck when they moved here in 1996. He had an early connection to Pike Place Market, thanks to his uncle Sammy who worked at Pike Place Fish. From a young age, he was spoiled by his mom’s cooking that involved very few processed foods and a delicious combination of whatever happened to be in the fridge. “With Filipino culture, food is part of us,” he explained.

Knowing he wanted to get into cooking as early as middle school, Gutierrez joined the Puget Sound Skills Center. Afterward, he didn’t stray too far from home due to his family’s closeness, so he landed at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, where an uncle was the only one he knew in the area.

He eventually boomeranged back to Pike Place cooking at the Steelhead Diner and then opening Blueacre Seafood with Kevin Davis. (He first learned about cooking with nettles here.) He speaks of feeling spoiled by the region’s bounty plus daily exposure to market vendors walking around with their fresh, seasonal, sometimes exotic ingredients.

Throughout his career, he’s intentionally dipped into a variety of cuisines and scenes, from a nursing home setting to fine dining at Canlis. When he wanted to learn about the world of hotels (his dad had been an engineer for DoubleTree), he headed to Hyatt Regency Bellevue’s restaurant Eques, before a promotion led him to open Water’s Table at the brand-new Lake Washington’s Hyatt Regency. Next he came to the Hyatt Regency Seattle before landing at Astra Hotel, where he’s been for eight months, creating vibrant menus for its restaurant, Otium Grill & Greens, and the rooftop bar and lounge ALTITUDE. “You have to cook food that you care about,” he said.

On days off, Gutierrez enjoys hiking up Rattlesnake Ridge or around the North Cascades, where he first found nettles. Foraging for them proves best in the spring, he advises—you can start as early as February, but March or April prove ideal once the sun emerges. When it’s too cold, the plants dry up; if you wait too late in the season, insects and animals will have gotten into them. Gutierrez and his crew take to higher-elevation trails with gloves and backpacks lined with plastic bags—one for mushrooms, one for licorice ferns, one for nettles.

Once home, the nettles can be kept in the refrigerator in plastic bags, containers or bins with good airflow (so condensation won’t build up). Alternatively, they can be blanched in hot water and dunked in an ice bath, then saved in the fridge for up to a week. Or, they can be vacuum-sealed and frozen for later use.

One of Gutierrez’s favorite ways to savor nettles is in a Filipino dish called laing, which he likens to braised collard greens. Traditionally the meal features tarot leaves, for which nettles can be substituted, that get braised with Thai coconut milk—to cut the spiciness from Thai chilis—plus cooked with garlic, onion and vinegar. This flavorful vegetarian dish then is served over rice. It has antioxidants and helps with high blood pressure, something, he says, Filipinos often must consider to offset other dietary proclivities like crispy pork. But nettles can also be enjoyed as dehydrated chips, as pesto on burrata or flat-bread, in salads or simply sautéed with garlic, butter and salt.

Non-foraging home chefs can find nettle plants at spots like Casa Cano Farms, which has a spring plant nursery at its location just south of Spokane in Valleyford. Beginning in May, they sell stinging nettle plants in 3.5-inch pots. “Nettles are perennials and spread through rhizomes and by seed,” Madyson Versteeg of Casa Cano Farms explained. “They can be planted in the ground or in containers, and prefer rich soil with lots of moisture.” Their crew recommends planting them somewhere where they have room to spread. “To harvest, wear gloves or carefully just touch the tops of leaves (which don’t sting), and cut or pinch the tender ends of shoots off into a container,” Versteeg said. Ideally nettles get harvested early in the season before flowers begin to form. A nettle’s sting gets disarmed when they are heated, dried or mashed.

“Nettle starts are most popular with people who are familiar with how good they are for you, and [those] who have the space and desire to grow them at home,” Versteeg said.

Leave a Reply