The feeling that comes with seeing the bill after a lavish night on the town isn’t the only sting for diners in D.C. this summer.
Meet urtica dioica. Commonly referred to as stinging nettle, this menacing-sounding plant comes into season at the same time as the sought-after ramp, which often pushes the nettle out of the spotlight.
“While most people focus their time on getting ramps, nettles are inexpensive, plentiful and have a unique flavor,” says Ed Scarpone, the executive chef at DBGB. “It reminds me of fresh-cut grass back home in Connecticut.”
Chefs use the leafy green herb to add a slightly earthy flavor to a plate, sometimes in place of basil. “It’s a great way to spruce up a played-out dish,” says Scarpone, who adds stinging nettle to the pesto in the downtown restaurant’s cavatelli dish.
The plant isn’t just a taste-bud tickler. “Nettles have been used medicinally for years,” says Tricia McCauley, resident herbalist at Common Good City Farm, an educational urban agricultural organization based in D.C. “This year it unexpectedly showed up in my garden, so I made a tonic with it.” When prepared in various forms, nettles can offer relief for ailments such as allergies, joint pain and muscle aches.
So why won’t you find nettles all over menus? As the name suggests, stinging nettles in their raw state sting. Hollow hairs, called trichomes, cover the serrated leaves and long stems of the plant, irritating anything that comes into contact with them.
“One of the first things I do is slap my cooks on the arm with it,” says Bibiana chef Jake Addeo, who finely chops the pesky plant and uses it with the restaurant’s ravioli-like cappellacci. “It might seem a little crazy, but it quickly teaches them to handle nettles properly.”
Home chefs and professionals alike need not worry too much — preparing nettles isn’t as odious as it might seem.
“Boiling the plant makes it so that it no longer stings,” says John Manolatos, chef at Cashion’s Eat Place. “Just make sure you’re wearing gloves when handling them raw.”
As the plant isn’t a common household item, Manolatos often finds himself teaching patrons about it. “We had one person ask me, ‘Why would you have jellyfish on the menu?’ ”
Manolatos says. After realizing the guest had confused the plant with sea nettles, Manolatos provided a quick explanation. A few chuckles later, the guest was enjoying the restaurant’s nettle soup.
“Nowadays patrons are more willing to try new things,” Manolatos says. “People are becoming well-versed in unconventional ingredients.”