In Season

Nettle, where is thy sting?

Mary Bailey

There is something ridiculously satisfying about eating something you picked yourself from the woods—kind of like finding that killer pair of shoes on sale. Foraging puts us in touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, and nettles are pretty effortless to find. They pop up in early spring, thriving in moist rich soil near streams and creeks and along shady trails. Nettles are grown commercially in Europe for the chlorophyll and the plant has been used in folk medicine for centuries.

How to pick: Wear gloves! Stinging nettles, a perennial edible plant with hairy tapered leaves and indistinct little white flowers, gets its name from the sharp hairs that cover the leaves containing formic acid. Not into foraging? Those with big gardens might want to encourage a patch of nettles. Mark it clearly so you don’t blunder through it in the summer wearing shorts. Use tongs while handling in the kitchen.

How to eat: They taste like spring— fresh, green, zesty, slightly bitter and a bit earthy. Use nettles wherever you would use spinach or parsley. Blanching (place in boiling water until they darken in colour, then submerge in a bowl of ice water until all the heat is gone) or cooking the leaves takes the sting out. Blanching and shocking also keeps the bright green colour. The leaves are best eaten when young and soft, and they partner beautifully with that other spring green, sorrel.

Nettle Soup
Like drinking a spring tonic, fresh and zippy

2T butter
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
2 leeks trimmed, washed and finely sliced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, peeled chopped
1 c nettle leaves, cleaned and chopped (or half sorrel, half nettle leaves). Wear heavy gloves and long sleeves while chopping the uncooked leaves.
1 sml floury potato, chopped
4 c chicken or vegetable stock
kosher or sea salt and freshly-cracked pepper
6 T crème fraiche or Greek- style plain yogurt
1 sml bunch chives, chopped (optional)

Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-low heat. Add garlic and vegetables. Cover and sweat gently for 10 minutes, stirring a few times, until soft but not brown. Add the potato and stock, bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the nettles and simmer for about five minutes or so, until the potato has dissolved and the nettles are tender (very young nettle tops will need only two to three minutes). Season. Purée the soup, reheat if necessary and check seasoning.

To serve: Pour into 6 warmed bowls and top each with a generous spoonful of yogurt or crème fraiche. Scatter over chopped chives if using.

Serves 6.

Nettle Risotto with Wild Strawberries (Risotto alle Ortiche con Fragole)
One day while hiking in Chianti a few years back, we stopped for lunch at a roadside tavern. On the chalkboard menu was a risotto with wild strawberries and nettles. Though it will never taste quite like the one we had there, as we do not grow those tiny, fragrant, full of flavour wild strawberries, this is close approximation of the freshness and springiness of that dish. Be careful not to stir too much after adding the strawberries, the colour is not attractive.

2 c nettle leaves, cleaned
2 T butter
1 sml onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 c risotto (arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano) rice
5-6 c vegetable (or chicken) stock kept warm
kosher or sea salt and freshly-cracked pepper
1 c small whole in-season strawberries (wild if you can find) cleaned, tops off.
Parmigiano or aged Pecorino cheese, grated

Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil, throw in the nettles and bring back to a boil. Blanch for 1-3 minutes, until they start to darken in colour, then shock in ice-cold water. Squeeze the nettles to take out as much water as possible and chop finely. Reserve.

In a large heavy pan, melt the butter over a medium-low heat. Add the onion and sweat for eight to 10 minutes, until soft and translucent but not browned. Add the rice, stir to coat the grains, pour in about a cup of the hot stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring, until almost all the stock has been absorbed. Keep adding stock about a cup at a time, only when the previous addition has been absorbed. Before the last addition of the stock stir in the nettles. The risotto is ready when the rice is al dente (almost cooked through) and nice and creamy and fairly loose in texture. You may not need all the stock. Stir in some butter and about 2-3 t cheese. Cover, leave for a few minutes, then stir in the strawberries right before serving. Pass more cheese if desired at the table.

Serves 6-8.

Priest-Strangler (Strozzapreti) Bread And Spinach Dumplings
Adapted from a recipe in Fiori Di Zucca by Valentina Harris.

Depending on what part of Italy you are in delicious dumplings made from bread and greens are called strozzapreti or strangolapreti. It was a frugal way to fill up the priest who came a little too often to eat your wife’s pasta, or so the story goes. It’s key to not handle gnocchi too much as they can become tough. Her method of shaping the gnocchi (in the instructions below) works well. Any greens will do, swiss chard or kale, or a mixture of beet leaves and other greens.

5-7 slices stale bread, torn into bite-sized chunks
2 c milk
3-4 c nettle leaves, cleaned
1 egg + 2 egg yolks, beaten
2 T light cream (or use the milk from the soaked bread)
1½ c Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
¼ T freshly-grated nutmeg
kosher or sea salt and freshly-cracked pepper
⅓ c flour
½ c butter

Put the bread in a large bowl, pour the milk over and leave to soak until soft. Squeeze the bread as dry as possible with your hands and leave to one side. At the same time, steam the nettles in a large saucepan until tender, then drain. Squeeze out as much water as possible, then chop finely or blitz in a food processor.

Put the nettles in a large mixing bowl and stir in the egg and egg yolks, then the cream or milk. Add the bread and half the cheese, season with the nutmeg, salt and pepper, then combine.

To shape and test the gnocchi: To test the mixture for consistency, wet the inside of a small glass with water then lightly dust with flour. Do not over-flour or the gnocchi will be rubbery. Drop a tablespoon of the mixture into the glass and shake the glass, tipping it to shape the mixture into gnocchi. Repeat with another tablespoon of the mixture.

Bring a small saucepan of salted water to the boil. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water—they should float to the surface in about 2 minutes and hold their shape. If not, adjust the remaining mixture by adding more egg or a little flour, or both, and extra salt and pepper to taste.

When the correct texture is achieved, continue shaping the remaining mixture in the glass, re-flouring as necessary. Tip the dumplings onto a parchment-covered baking sheet, spacing the gnocchi well apart. Chill until required.

Preheat the oven to its lowest setting. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Working in small batches, slip the gnocchi into the pan and cook for about 2 minutes, or until they float to the surface. Scoop out with a slotted spoon and keep warm in the oven. Continue until all the gnocchi are cooked. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Pour it over the gnocchi, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and serve.

Serves 4-6.

Nettle Butter
Compound butters bring luxuriousness to a dish. The classic maître d’hôtel butter is made with parsley and garlic. This version uses nettles instead of parsley; lovely on pork, fish, chicken or steamed vegetables.

1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, softened
½ c nettle leaves, blanched, shocked and finely chopped
2 T minced shallot
squeeze fresh lemon juice
½ t minced garlic
kosher or sea salt and freshly-cracked pepper

Place the butter in a small bowl or in the bowl of a food processor. Add the nettles, shallot, garlic and seasoning. Mash with a wooden spoon (or blitz) until combined. Check for seasoning, adding lemon juice and more salt if necessary. Chill for a few minutes. Place a piece of plastic wrap on a flat surface. Form the butter into a log by wrapping up in the plastic. Chill.

To serve: Unroll and place a slice on each piece of meat right before serving.

Sauteed Nettles with Black Garlic

2 c nettles leaves
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
juice of ¼ lemon
3 T black garlic* chopped
kosher or sea salt and freshly-cracked pepper

Preheat a large sauté pan on medium heat with the oil. Place the nettles into the pan and stir until they start to wilt. Add the black garlic and lemon juice and cook until the leaves are completely wilted and the mixture is hot. You may need to add a bit of water to keep the nettles from browning.

To serve: Place nettles on a serving dish, drizzle a bit of oil over and serve with some extra lemon. Serves 4

*Black garlic (fermented garlic) is available at the Italian Centre Shops).

Pasta with Nettles and Mushrooms

1 T olive oil
2-3 green onions sliced
1 clove garlic, chopped
10 button mushrooms, finely sliced
1 c nettle leaves, picked over and chopped (handle carefully)
¾ c crème fraiche
kosher or sea salt and freshly-cracked pepper
grated Parmigiano or pecorino cheese
4-6 handful dried pasta (such as gemelli, fusilli or rotini)

Heat the oil in a pan and sauté onions and garlic until pale golden-brown. Add the mushrooms and fry over med-high heat until most of the water in the mushrooms has evaporated, about 8-10 minutes. Add chopped nettles a bit at
a time, adding more when the previous addition has wilted. Continue cooking over medium heat until almost dry. Stir in the crème fraîche, bring to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Season.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in salted boiling water, according to packet instructions. When al dente, drain the pasta, leaving a bit of the starchy water behind. Toss with the sauce over heat, until the sauce is well incorporated. To serve: place on 4-6 plates and pass the cheese.

Serves 4-6.

Stinging Nettle Chimichurri

“Serve as a sauce for grilled meats. Stinging nettle is my favourite spring ingredient. I have cooked within the seasons for so many years, and nettles are the first green thing we see. Well, and dandelions, but you can only eat so many dandelion leaves.

We have nettles planted in the student garden at SAIT. We’ll harvest in the spring, then cut them back or pull them. They’ll grow back so we have almost constant access to young tender leaves.

Nettles taste grassy green, very fresh. To cook, blanch and shock then do anything you want— put in a soup, puree it, chop cooked leaves into a risotto.” Chef Scott Pohorelic, culinary instructor SAIT

2-3 pieces dried chipotle chilies
1 c white wine vinegar
2 c stinging nettle
½ c fresh parsley, minced
¼ c fresh mint, minced
1 T fresh garlic, minced
1 T grainy Dijon mustard
1 c extra virgin olive oil
2 t kosher salt

Break up the chilies enough that you can remove the stems. Grind the chilies into a fine powder. A mortar and pestle will work as well as an electric spice grinder or blender. Heat the vinegar, pour over the chili powder and let stand at room temperature until cooled. Be careful with the nettles. Wear thick gloves or use tongs to handle them until they’re cooked. Blanch and shock the nettles by placing them into a pot of boiling water until they darken in colour, about 2 minutes. Strain and then submerge in a bowl of ice water until they’re cold, about 3 minutes. Drain well and shake out as much water as you can. The nettles don’t sting anymore, so now is when you want to remove the large stems. Chop the remaining leaves quite fine. Combine herbs with the chopped nettles, mustard, olive oil and salt. Mix well. The acid in the vinegar will hurt the nice green colour so mix in the vinegar just before serving. Keeping the two parts separate, this recipe will last nicely in the fridge for 4-5 days. I usually combine two parts herb mixture to one part vinegar, depending on what meats I’m grilling. For fatty meats like lamb I’ll make the sauce more acidic.

Mary Bailey’s nettle patch is a secret.