Thursday, May 10, 2012

cooking with nettles

i can't count the times i've sworn at the patches of stinging nettle around our property (and they are many) as they stung my hands or my legs. but i won't be doing it anymore. not now that i've learned how wonderful nettles are to eat! they're also really good for you - with one of the highest protein contents in the plant world and loads of medicinal uses (which i won't go into here, as i'm no expert and haven't yet tried them).

for each of the recipes below, i picked one colander full of nettle tops (not heaped, to the top is just fine). i wear gloves and snip the tender top sets of leaves with a little herb scissors. i can recommend that you do not let some temporary insanity come over you and poke your nose into your colander full of nettles and smell them. that can be rather painful and cause quite an interruption in your process.

to remove the stingy part of the nettles, get a pan of water with a pinch of salt in it on the boil and dunk your fresh nettles into the pot for 2-3 minutes (they should remain bright green). these early spring nettles have been clean and pretty bug-free, so i didn't do much rinsing before the boiling water bath. i might as the summer progresses. if you fish them out of your hot water bath with a strainer, the sand and dirt will sink to the bottom of your water anyway, so you'll be ok. after removing them from the hot water bath, transfer them back to your colander, it's ok to squeeze out the excess liquid with your bare hands now, as the sting has been taken out of your brilliant green nettles.

nettle pesto

100 grams toasted pine nuts
1 colander of blanched nettles, excess liquid squeezed out
2 cloves of garlic
a generous grating of fresh parmesan
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil to the desired consistency

toast your pine nuts (taking care not to wander away while you're doing this or they will burn). place them in the food processor with the blanched nettles, garlic, salt and pepper and several tablespoons of good olive oil. blitz it up. if it's not liquid-y enough, add more olive oil until it's how you like it. serve with fresh bread, over pasta, or as a healthy alternative to sauce on a pork chop or steak. i even coated a chicken in it recently before roasting it in the oven. it's very versatile. you may even want to just stand in front of the refrigerator and furtively eat a few spoonfuls when no one is looking.

nettle pesto
nettle hummus

250 grams chickpeas (canned or soaked dry ones)
1 generous tablespoon tahini
2 cloves garlic
1 colander of blanched nettles
olive oil to the desired consistency

put it all in the food processor and blitz it together. drizzle olive oil until it's a smooth, creamy consistency. great with freshly-baked bread or as a dip for veggies.

nettle hummus
homemade pasta always seems posh and as if you went to an extraordinary amount of work, but it's much easier than it looks. even if you start by making your own ricotta. i did so, because ricotta can be hard to find in our grocery stores, so i was missing this key ingredient when i wanted to make gnocchi with my nettles.  all it takes is milk, cream and a little bit of vinegar.

homemade ricotta

1 liter of whole milk
1/2 liter of cream
2 generous tablespoons of vinegar (use white if you want the ricotta to be creamy white, use apple cider vinegar if you don't mind it a bit more yellow)

pour the milk and cream into a heavy saucepan and heat gently until it just begins to bubble*. remove from the heat, add the vinegar and stir. it will curdle immediately. pour it through a strainer that's lined with cheesecloth or a tea towel and allow it to drain well. the longer you leave it to drain, the firmer it will be. i found that for the gnocchi, i didn't want it to be too firm, as it was harder to work with that way.  save the whey (the liquid you drain off the cheese curds) and use it the next time you bake bread instead of the usual liquid. it's delicious and nutritious! i just keep the whey in a jar in the fridge 'til i'm ready to use it.

*i read a lot of recipes for homemade ricotta and made multiple batches before arriving at this one - many of them are very fussy about the precise temperature of the milk, but i've found that didn't much matter, so i don't bother to use a thermometer. i'm all for keeping it simple.

ricotta and a jar of whey
nettle gnocchi

1 batch of homemade ricotta (it yields approx 250-300 grams/1 generous cup)
1 egg
1/2 C flour (i adore italian tipo 00 flour)
generous half cup of blanched nettles, finely chopped
salt & pepper

mix well. if the consistency is too liquidy, add a bit more flour. if it's too dry, add another egg. it all depends on how much you drain your ricotta and how much liquid you squeeze out of the nettles. if you buy commercial ricotta, you'll likely need a bit more flour. it should be firm enough to work with by hand. you roll it into a thick rope and slice it into small bite-size gnocchi. turn the gnocchi in flour to coat. put them into salted boiling water, in small batches, a handful at a time. they initially sink to the bottom and then rise when they're nearly done. i serve them very simply with a bit of butter and salt, or a spoonful of the pesto. simple and delicious. we've not yet had leftovers.

there are many other uses for nettles. i have yet to try tea.  i intend to dry some and make a seasoning salt.  sabin made nettle soup when she was in kindergarten, so we'll try that, cooking outdoors at some point this summer. when the stalks are larger and a bit more tough, it's possible to cut them, let them dry a few days and give them to your horse as a treat with their hay. they love it! i'm starting to feel downright lucky my yard is positively full of them!

*  *  *

also posted on forage: east & west


Elizabeth said...

Never ate any nettles but since you keep going on about how good they taste I might give it a try.

Lucy said...

I love eating nettles, but have tended to restrict myself to soup or colcannon (bubble and squeak, ie mix them with mash potato and and onion and (optionally) fry it. Your gnocchi sound particularly good. I'm a bit of a purist about pesto and like it to be basil, though I use different nuts and seeds, not only pine nuts. Tahini is not too easy to buy here for hummus.

Be warned though, about eating nettles later in the summer. Richard Mabey, in 'Food for Free' says 'nettles should not be picked for eating after the beginning of June', as, he says, they become 'bitter in taste and decidedly laxative.' I've never tried it, as I find anyway that I mostly fancy them in the spring when the craving for new, wild, green things is strongest, but I remember a magazine columnist who was into self-sufficiency and foraging saying they ignored his warning and the following few days were best glossed over! Might be OK if you stick to the top shoots, I suppose, and have a fairly tough constitution...

julochka said...

lucy - VERY good to know!! i had intended to have husband keep mowing a patch of them, so they stay small and new-growth, but there will be plenty more of the giant ones, so it's VERY good to know that one should watch out. unless, of course, there is a need for that laxative effect. :-) heehee. thank you for sharing! this whole nettle thing is quite new to me.

Magpie said...

just the other day, i bought nettles at the farmers market, so we could make this:

it was delicious, though we made it with whole grain farro (instead of farro pasta). it was rather in the risotto camp, and we'd totally do it again.

Lisa-Marie said...

I am going to have to go nettle foraging now.

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

I have been thinking about cooking with nettles for ages which tells you something about the parts of my garden I don't photograph. I have all the books but haven't quite got there. You have inspired me. (And sorry to have taken so long to find your new incarnation. I thought you had stopped blogging and missed you.)


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