Spring Tonics – Green Tea and Nettles
When we lived in Japan, one of the most charming aspects of daily life was the way that everyone celebrated and highlighted the changing seasons. It seemed like all of our friends set aside time to admire and soak in the natural beauty of cherry blossoms in spring, hydrangeas in summer, maple leaves in fall, and moss gardens in the winter. Each season brought special foods – often foraged foods that were available for only a short window of time and were all the more anticipated and savored because of it! Our Japanese friends always encouraged us to eat heartily, noting that these special, seasonal treats were especially healthful and nourishing.
Now that we’re back in the Pacific Northwest, I look forward to my own special, spring treat: Stinging Nettles! Some people are surprised to find out that the nettles we feared as children are actually packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids. Both European and Native American healing traditions incorporate nettles, in a variety of ways. While my favorite nettle recipe is Nettle-Parmesan Risotto, this rich and comforting dish is probably not the healthiest way to enjoy the benefits! Teas and Tonics are traditional, delicious and refreshing, and provide a wonderful way to connect with the fleeting newness of spring. This Spring, I added a little flavor of Japan to my Nettle Tea and Spring Tonic, with brewed green tea, and the results were even better. The flavors and health benefits are a perfect match. Because nettles can have a slightly astringent quality, I like how the toasty warmth of Genmaicha mellows the sharpness of nettle tea, while Morning Tea with Lemon Grass enhances the fresh, green flavors of nettle.
You may be able to find foraged nettles in a local farmer’s market. I’m lucky enough to have some in my own back yard (more like a ‘back forest’) but many parks, hiking trails, and natural spaces host a nettle patch. You’ll want to avoid areas subject to road runoff or other sources of pollution, and be sure to wear gloves! I like dishwashing gloves – it seems like any time I wear shorter gloves, I inevitably get a sting on my wrist! (And it still hurts as much as it did when we were kids…..) Cut the top 4-5 inches of each plant and drop into a paper bag to transport home.
To remove the ‘sting’ of nettles, blanch in boiling water for about 30 seconds, then plunge into cold water. Be sure to rinse the nettles thoroughly before blanching – the leftover water is a nettle tea suitable for drinking. The drained nettle leaves can be used in cooking like steamed spinach (yummmm, risotto….) or used to make a vinegar Tonic.
For a concentrated Nettle-Green Tea, put 25 grams of unblanched nettle tops and 2 teaspoons of green tea leaves into a quart container, then fill with boiling water. Allow to steep for 30 minutes, then strain, and keep in a closed container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Use 1-2 Tablespoons in hot or cold water as a Spring Tonic, or add as a nutritional boost to recipes.
For a traditional vinegar Tonic, loosely pack a quart canning jar with blanched nettle tops, and 2 teaspoons of green tea leaves, then fill the jar with vinegar. I used natural cider vinegar, but other types of vinegar would provide interesting taste combinations. Store the lidded jar in the refrigerator. The tonic should steep for 4-6 weeks, and then can be strained through cheesecloth for a clearer appearance. Use by the teaspoonful in water or other healthful drinks, or as a boost of green flavor in salad dressings or other typical uses of vinegar. (If you are following the trend of taking cider vinegar every day, this tonic is the perfect Spring boost!)