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...
A couple of years ago, a friend 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.
Lesson 2: The recipes
Over the last few months I’d seen a few interesting nettle recipes going around so I decided to give nettles another chance. It was through this effort of experimentation that I discovered that nettles are totally worthwhile. Here are the recipes I 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.
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.
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).
Lesson 4: Where to get started
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!
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!