The early spring weather has brought on the nettle crop a treat – to the frustration of gardeners, but the delight of foragers.
Not, I must admit, that I have done much foraging – although some of the delicate young leaves on Hampstead Heath yesterday evening did look quite appealing… My nettles came, courtesy of Farm Direct, from Wild Fields Farm in Essex – along with land cress and salad rocket from Perry Court near Cantebury and wonderful spinach from Ripple Farm Organics, also near Cantebury. (I could also have had some wild garlic from Burcombe Cliff Organic Farm but I am proud to say that I have my own patch of wild garlic pushing its way up down at the bottom of the garden.)
However, I doubt that I could have picked anywhere near as handsome a crop as I received, and which immediately set me off to think what I could do with them. Nettle soup is the classic and the recipe below is very simple. I did have another in my files but it involved orange and lemon juice which seemed a strange combination of flavours which could only have masked the delicate flavour of the nettles.
Corn, egg, gluten, nightshade, nut and wheat free; can be dairy, lactose and soya free
250g/9ozs young nettle tops and leaves, no stalks (approx 350g/12oz whole nettles) – plus a few extra leaves for decoration
1 tbsp coconut oil or butter or 2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
200g/7oz old potatoes, scrubbed and roughly cut
500ml/17floz unsweetened soya or oat milk
500ml/17floz gluten and wheat free vegetable stock
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Wash the nettles thoroughly then discard the stalks. Remember to wear rubber gloves. Heat the oils or butter in a deep pan and gently cook the onion for a few minutes then add the nettle leaves. Cover the pan and sweat very gently for 15 minutes.
Add the potatoes, ‘milk’ and stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 30–40 minutes. Remove and puree in a food processor.
Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve, hot or chilled, decorated with the extra nettle leaves.
That delicate nettle flavour is given full scope in recipe number two – nettle and anchovy soufflé. I was trying to think of some combination of ingredients which would give the delicious umami flavour edge of parmesan (a staple ingredient in most soufflés) but which would be dairy free, and anchovies proved to be just the ticket. (The lovely thing about anchovies is that if you sauté them very gently with leek or onion at the start of the dish, they ‘melt’ so that, rather than getting bits of salty anchovy scattered through the dish, their flavour just subtly permeates all the other ingredients.)
Nettle and anchovy soufflé
This is a really lovely, delicately flavoured soufflé. I made it for two but if you want to make it for four people, just double up on the ingredients and cook for 45 minutes or until the soufflé is well risen a lightly browned on top.
People get very scared of soufflés but as long as you put in enough eggs and are sure to use one more white than you do yolk, you really cannot go wrong…
oil from a 50g/2oz tin of anchovies, canned in olive oil if possible, plus 1 extra tbsp olive oil
1 small leek, sliced very finely
4 large anchovies from the tin, chopped small
100g /4oz young nettle tops and leaves
1 level tbsp gluten and wheat free flour
250ml/8floz oat milk or unsweetened soya milk
freshly ground black pepper
the yolks of 4 and the whites of 5 medium free-range eggs
Heat the oils in a heavy and very gently fry the leeks and anchovies until both are softening – around 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, wash the nettle tops thoroughly and dry lightly – make sure that you wear rubber gloves and that you discard all the tough stalks. Chop them very briefly in a food processor – you want the leaves chopped small but not puréed to a mush.
Add the nettles to the leeks and anchovies, cover the pan and sweat very gently for a further 10 minutes.
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas mark 4.
Add the flour to the mixture and stir over the heat for a few moments, then gradually add the oat milk or soya milk. Continue to cook and stir gently until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from the heat. Leave for a couple of moment to cool slightly.
Separate the eggs and stir the yolks into the nettle mixture.
Whisk the whites with a hand whisk until they hold in soft mounds – do not whisk them really stiff as you would for meringues.
Gently stir approximately 1/3 of the whites into the nettle mixture with a folding/stirring motion, getting them well amalgamated. Then gently fold in the remaining whites.
Pour into a soufflé dish approximately 15cm/6 inches in diameter. (If your dish is smaller and the uncooked mixture is likely to fill the dish completely, make a collar of foil or greaseproof paper round the dish, tied with string, to hold the mixture in if it rises above the edges of the dish.)
Cook for 30 minutes or until the soufflé is risen and lightly browned on top. Serve at once followed by a green salad.
Of course, if you do not want to do any of that, you could always just add your nettles to your juicing pile….
I feel distinctly guilty as although I invested in a Vitamix juicer around this time last year (when all those tempting young leaves were around) I have not been very good at using it – even though I know that juiced vegetables and fruits do deliver just the very best nutrition you can get. If you want to be convinced take a look Victoria Boutenko’s Raw Family site.
In nutritional terms nettles have significant quantities of iron, calcium, chorlophyll and vitamins A, C, D and K; as a herbal medicine, they have been used for centuries as a diuretic and for treating anaemia, allergies, arthritis, prostate enlargement and PMS. For more, see the Practical Herbalist site.
And if all of that is just too much…. You can always make do with nettle tea. One third fill your cup or mug with well washed young nettle leaves and pour on boiling water – or, if you want to learn about it in more depths, Nettle Tea Headquarters has devoted a whole website to the art of making nettle tea – from both fresh and dried nettles.
Mind you, since nearly all of the herb tea manufacturers sell nettle tea, you could just buy a box and use a tea bag!