How much do you know about stinging nettles? They’re very hot with foragers and lovers of wild food, and they’re gaining a growing mainstream acceptance — both as a highly nutritious super-food, as well as a greener source for cloth and paper.
I’ve been a bit of a nettle head since we moved out of the big city, and I’ve got company here on Pender — one friend makes a beautiful nettle, calendula, lavender and chamomile blend that is more of a tonic than a tea. Others make tasty soups, quiches and spanokopitas. If you can make it with spinach — you can make it (BETTER) with nettles.
So if you’re driving on Pender at this time of year, you may see more than one of us wearing our yellow dish gloves poking around in a clearing at the side of the road. We’re not crazy — trust me — we’re just tending our nettle patch.
Always wear gloves, long sleeves and long pants when harvesting and washing nettles. If you don’t, (and even if you do) you will get stung. Don’t touch or rub the sting — if you can resist, most likely the discomfort will disappear in a couple of hours.
Avoid ditches and other areas where animals go to relieve themselves. It doesn’t matter how many times you wash a nettle if it’s been used as the boundary marker for half a dozen neighbourhood dogs, does it?
I harvest most of the nettles that Howard and I eat from a patch that in the forest behind our house. Don’t pull up the plant by the roots — you’ll be destroying a habitat rich with insect life, as well as destroying the chance for another crop — instead, with careful clipping (take only the top 2 or 3 sets of leaves), you can get multiple tender tips from the same plant over a whole season.
Once you’ve got yourself a bag or basket full, you’re ready to discover the culinary power of a little plant many consider no more than a nuisance. They couldn’t be more wrong. Read on and see what I mean:
1. Nettle Pesto — pesto is an easy first way to enjoy nettles, and it is also fun to adapt and make your own. I add ½ cup of fresh parsley or dill and some lemon zest if I’m serving it with fish, omit the cheese for vegan pesto, or switch up the nuts (try almonds, hazlenuts or walnuts) for a different taste.
2. Nettle Beer — intrigued? So am I. A couple of people on Pender tell stories from the 70s of nights fueled by nettle beer, followed by long days of sheep shearing — hangover free — the beer got them drunk, it just didn’t make them sick. Too bad none of them have a recipe or can even recall who made it. At least there’s always google…
My first batch didn’t develop any bubbles, but the additions of lemon, rhubarb and ginger combine for a wonderful, deep flavour. After doing a bit more research, I’ve come to conclusion that the first recipe I followed was actually for a non-alcoholic Nettle Beer, more along the lines of a dandelion/burdock-root soda. It’s actually very refreshing when you mix a little soda water into it for bubbles.
I’m starting the next batch (with some yeast added) on Sunday. The yeast should give me the alcoholic kick I’m looking for. If anyone out there has some tips, please feel free to share…
3. Rennet — that’s right, nettles can seperate milk into curds and whey. So although cheese will never be vegan (duh), there is a way to make it completely vegetarian. I have a batch of goat’s milk feta curing that I made using liquid rennet derived from wild nettles. Pictures will have to wait — I have some pretty grand plans for this feta, let me tell you! In the meantime, here’s how you can make your own vegetarian rennet:
In a large pot, combine 1lb (500 g) nettle tips with 2 quarts (2 litres) of cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Use a pair of tongs to push the nettles below the surface of the boiling water until wilted and submerged. Continue to boil the nettles over medium heat for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, strain out the nettles, reserving the liquid. Stir 2 teaspoons of salt into the hot liquid, then set aside to cool. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
It took about 2/3 cup of my homemade nettle rennet for 2 quarts (2 litres) of pasteurized goat’s milk.
4. Bread – based on the same dough as my Carmelized Onion Beer Bread, the nettles in this bread are accented with Parmigianno Reggiano and preserved lemon. This complex yet fresh combination make it a great candidate for any meal. Find my recipe for Stinging Nettle Bread at EatMagazine.ca.
Try it toasted and topped with a poached egg for breakfast, as a BLT sandwich for lunch, or spread with garlic butter and broiled as a side for your pasta dinner. So good!
5. Spaetzle or Pasta – both of the recipes I used to create the spaetzle above (with s.d. tomatoes, preserved lemon and Parmigianno), and the nettle fettucine below come from HunterAnglerGardnerCook — although he calls the pasta Strettine, which is a traditional nettle pasta from northern Italy. I’m calling mine fettucine.
Spaetzle is an egg noodle from Germany, Austria, Hungary and the surrounding region. It’s fast and easy enough to make for a weeknight dinner, especially if you have a spaetzle maker. A colander or cheese grater works in a pinch too.
To use the nettles in these pastas and the bread above, I blanched them in boiling salted water for about 2 minutes. Then I shocked the cooked nettles in ice water until cool, and squeezed as much water out of them as I could. After squeezing them by hand, I rolled them in a towel to wring out any remaining water.
I didn’t chop my nettles finely enough for the fettucine. It was still very good, but it made for streaky pasta that was a little finicky to get through the pasta roller — nothing major, but next time I’ll do a better job of chopping.
Have you ever eaten nettles?