When using nettles in the kitchen, the best advice is to wear a thick pair of gloves, and then handle them as freely as you want.
Nettles are a historic ingredient, in fact 'nettle pudding' has been officially declared Britain's oldest pudding, created round 6,000BC. The green weeds have been used for nettle beer and nettle wine through the ages, and are currently back on the menu thanks to the trend for foraging — with a simple nettle soup being an indisputably beautiful, British springtime dish.
Nettles have a verdant, spinach-like flavour, and you can almost taste the iron and minerals bursting out from the leaves. Best of all, these plants litter Britain's verges and hedgerows in early springtime, are easy to identify and free to pick.
The only barrier to enjoyment is that foragers must ensure that the leaves haven't been sprayed. This might mean cultivating your own patch in a garden, or doing some research on the upkeep of local hedgerows and woodlands. Failing that, food-safe stinging nettles can be ordered through specialist ingredient websites or directly from professional foragers.
It's important to start by washing the leaves. Even if you are sure that they haven't been sprayed, you never know what animal has been doing what nearby!
Once the nettles have been washed, pick the leaves off the stalk. At this point, it's best to think of stinging nettles in a similar fashion to spinach in terms of cooking the leaves. Quickly blanching them in a pot of boiling water will deaden the sting. But leave them for too long and - like spinach - the leaves will wilt too far, and start to lose flavour, texture and goodness.
Treat the cooked nettle leaves as you would treat cooked spinach leaves. Firstly, squeeze the moisture out of them and then add a splash of cream for a delicious side dish, or chop them loosely into a pasta sauce. Like spinach, it's possible to freeze nettle leaves — do it in an ice cube tray, and then you can quickly defrost one cube at a time to quickly and easily add big green flavours to anything from an omelette to a risotto.
Nettles must be blanched to remove the sting, so any raw salads are out of the window. Instead, look to recipes which might include cooked spinach leaves - quiches, curries, soups and fish pies, and use as a substitute.
The leaves have such big green flavours, they aren't reliant on other ingredients. Having said that, a nettle pesto is reliant on the addition of pine nuts or walnuts; a nettle-based salsa verde is improved by the addition of green herbs; a nettle-based pasta sauce benefits from a little garlic; nettle soup is improved by salty vegetable stock, and some salty feat works nicely on a nettle tart.
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