Nettles

Nettle lover or nettle hater, this is for everyone who has the yen to start foraging for food as the days lengthen. This extract on Nettles is from the Spring section of my latest book The Great British Vegetable Cookbook (see Books).  

The soft emerald leaves of common or stinging nettles ( Urtica dioica) emerge in early March, carpeting the hedgerows, banks and forgotten corners in a mass of fuzzy green leaves.  For centuries they were irresistible to country cooks short of fresh greens after the long winter.  Children were sent out to gather their young shoots, so that their mothers could strip their leaves to add to simple nourishing broths, or cook in butter to serve as green vegetable.  As the nettles grew larger, stalks and all were turned into nettle beer.

 

During the Second World War, people were encouraged to eat nettles .  In Wild Food (1984) Roger Phillips recalls being sent out from his village school to pick nettles, which the school cook would ‘cook into a most unsavoury pulp.  Then when it was time for the babies’ lunch, the long-suffering six [Phillips and his schoolmates] had to attempt to push it down the babies’ gullets – the babies, quite rightly, explosively rejected it, usually into the face of the feeder …. believe it or not, I love them now!’

 

As with all greens, nettles need light cooking.  Handled with care they can be used in place of spinach in pasta, soup and tarts, or mixed into mashed potato with wild garlic to make colcannon. 

 

Practicalities

*  Nettle tops should be picked when the plants are still small and tender, just a few inches high.  This can be from late February to late May depending on where you live.  Don’t pick for eating from early June onwards - the leaves undergo a chemical change, making them unpleasantly bitter and fibrous, as well as a powerful laxative.

 

*  Always use thick gloves when picking nettles and rubber gloves when preparing them. 

 

*  Wash the nettles in several changes of cold water, then strip the leaves from their stems and discard the stems.  The leaves should be cooked.

 

Culinary notes

*  Nettles have an unusual slightly woolly texture once cooked.  For this reason, I prefer to combine them with other ingredients, rather than eat them simply wilted in butter like spinach.

 

* They soak up creamy foods, such as butter, cream and soft cheeses, and thus work well in some traditional British dishes, including leek soup or bubble and squeak, especially when partnered with potatoes.

 

*  Flavour them with spring onions, wild garlic or leeks, perhaps with a touch a lemon zest, mace or nutmeg.

 

 

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