Cooking with Nettles

The Stinging Nettle is an edible plant which grows prolifically like a weed in wet woods, hedge banks and river valleys (and in my garden). It is so-called because the leaves are covered with fine, stinging hairs, making them a mild hassle to forage. However, this year I’ve learned that they are well worth the effort. Here is my journey of nettle discovery…

Nettles

A couple of years ago, my friend Mike and I made nettle soup. Even with the Vitamix, the result was a little rough… literally. The soup seemed gritty, not in a dirty kind of way, but in a nettle-y sort of way. Having picked the nettles in the rain and suffering a few stings along the way, I decided nettles weren’t worth the effort and wrote them off… until this year…

Lesson 1: The art of picking nettles

I’m pretty sure the reason behind my lacklustre nettle soup was that I picked the wrong leaves. Leaves should be picked while young, early in the season if possible (nettle season is late February to early June). According to Richard Mabey’s invaluable book, Food for Free:

“Older leaves – especially those formed after June – contain tiny crystalline particles giving them a gritty texture. They are also bitter and can often have a laxative effect. The very best nettles are the whole shoots picked when they are just a few centimetres high in March.”

Also, before you use the nettles, remove all traces of tough stems and wash really well.

Brave little ladybug

Lesson 2: The recipes

Over the last few months I’d seen a few interesting nettle recipes going around. Meanwhile, my friend Emily was honing her own curiosity about nettles. So when we got together for Beltane recently (and Imbolc a couple months prior), we put some of these recipes to the test. (The seasons have a way of sparking creativity, particularly in the food and foraging department.)

Nettle Recipes

It was through this effort of experimentation that we discovered that nettles are totally worthwhile. Here are the recipes we tried:

  • Nettle Spanakopita - This was good and deserves a do-over I reckon.
  • Nettle Pizza #1 - Using the Tartine Bread method, putting raw nettles on the pizza. I loved the texture from the nettles on this one (see Lesson 3 below)
  • Nettle Pizza #2 - Here we put blanched nettles on the pizza, so it was more like spinach. Also good but I preferred Nettle Pizza #1.
  • Stinger Balls - A foraging double whammy with nettles and wild garlic, mixed with cheese and formed into balls. Err on the smaller side with your stinger balls, and bake in the oven to make sure they’re cooked all the way through.
  • Nettle Farinata - I love farinata regardless but adding a couple nettle leaves to the batter adds cool texture and makes them look super cool.
  • Nettle and Mushroom Omelette - You just can’t go wrong with this. Blanch the nettle first then chop finely and add to the omelet with cooked mushrooms.
  • Nettle Smoothies - Both with juiced and blended nettles. This worked really well but warning: go easy on the nettles, a small handful is plenty.
  • Nettle and Wild Garlic Pesto - Another foraging double whamming; the nettles are a great way to tone down the super potency of wild garlic.
  • Nettle Cordial - OK we didn’t make this one but Kanna did and it’s hugely interesting.

A couple things that require further experimentation: dehydrated nettles, my attempt at nettle crisps – they didn’t turn out very well, but I think it’s because I was stingy in coating the nettles with oil. Also, nettle tea - this was just not very good but I blame myself for including the stems with the leaves (a nettle tea no-no apparently). Finally, the elusive nettle soup that I have yet to try again. This Nettle Broth with Scallops and Horseradish from Richard Corrigan sounds really interesting. I also like this idea for Nettle Sauce to go with poached eggs.

Lesson 3: Why nettles are worthwhile

Are nettles really any better or different than spinach, kale or other green that’s far easier to get a hold of? Well, “better” is a matter of personal preference, but they are definitely different. The most amazing nettle discovery I’ve had through my experiments is their texture, particularly in cases like Nettle Pizza #1 and Nettle Farinata. Unlike spinach or wild garlic, which gets soft and almost disappears into the other ingredients when cooked, nettles retain a definite texture, and when the whole leaves are kept intact, those nettle hairs (no longer prickly since they’ve been cooked) make for a pretty neat mouth-feel that I don’t think I’ve experienced from any other vegetable.

Nettle farinata.

It’s also worth noting nettles’ nutritional benefits. Nettles are remarkably high in calcium – 1 cup of cooked nettles contains 42% RDA of Calcium (compared to spinach’s 24%). Nettles are also high in potassium, iron, sulphur, vitamin C, vitamin A and B complex vitamins. If you really want to be hardcore about it, you can make this nettle infusion that’s basically like a stinging nettle IV drip (I don’t think I want to be that hardcore).

Nettle Smoothies

I’d put nettles right up there with spinach in terms of nutritional powerhouse-ness (click here to compare the two), but nettles are free. So attention all you health-conscious, adventurous people on a budget – nettles are for you!

Lesson 4: Where to get started

There are an infinite number of ways to discover the marvellous nettle, and I recommend getting started with this easy recipe from Rachel Demuth. Let’s face it, it’s hard to go wrong with a deep fry, and these deep fried nettle fritters are no exception. They make a great party trick but are tasty too: green goodness encapsulated in crispy batter, best served with a good pinch of salt and squeeze of lemon or a tasty sauce – Food Urchin’s Foraged Salsa Verde would be ideal!

Nettle Fritters

Nettle Fritters

Serves: 4

Ingredients:

  • Nettle tips – pick succulent tips and leave enough stalk to give you something to hold on to
  • Sunflower oil for frying
  • Lemon wedges

For the batter

  • 200ml ice cold water
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 90g sifted plain white flour
  • 2-3 ice cubes

Method:

  1. To make the batter, pour the ice cold water into a mixing bowl. Mix in the beaten egg, add the flour and roughly fold in with a fork – do not beat, the batter should be lumpy! Add the ice cubes.
  2. Heat the sunflower oil in a wok or deep fryer.
  3. Dip the nettle tips into the batter a few at a time, allowing any excess batter to drain back into the bowl. The nettles should be only thinly coated.
  4. Fry the battered nettles until golden, then drain on kitchen paper.
  5. Serve hot with a pinch of salt, a wedge of lemon & a salsa verde.

So that’s my experience with nettles so far, but more inspiration is wanted. What have you been doing with nettles? Any cool recipes worth trying?

This post also appeared on Great British Chefs.

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