Wild Food

Cooking with Nettles

In the past stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) were not only collected in the wild for food, but grown in vegetable gardens and even in cold frames to get young leaves as early as possible. 19th-century gardening manuals recommend growing nettles as an excellent spinach-like vegetable. Nettle’s extremely varied vitamin and mineral content, as well as an unusually high protein content (up to 25% of its dry weight), entirely justify its reputation as superfood.

Nettle is rich in iron and therefore has been traditionally used as an effective treatment for anemia. Powdered dry leaves were mixed with honey and a teaspoon of mixture taken several times a day.

Nettles are undoubtedly at their best in early spring, but they are available through much of the year. Since nettles are hardy and easily survive light frost, it is possible to find young plants growing even in late November.

Cooking with Nettles: frost-covered nettle in late November
Frost-covered nettle in late November

Nettles don’t cost anything and do not require effort involved in growing your own vegetables. They are easy to collect (as long as you have gloves!) and very difficult to confuse with other plants. They are also entirely organic, as long as they are collected away from agricultural fields and busy roads. They are of course also local and seasonal.

There are very many traditional and new recipes involving nettles, because for a very long time they have been an important part of many national cuisines. Tops of young plants, collected before flowering, can be used in most dishes as an alternative to spinach or young cabbage.

Here are some simple and interesting recipes to try.

Nettles with Walnut Sauce

Ingredients:

200g young nettle tops, 30g spring onions, 20g parsley, 25g walnuts, 1tsp vinegar.

Method:

Put nettle tops in boiling water and boil for 3min. Drain, reserving 1/4 glass of nettle stock. Cool and chop.

To make a dressing: grind walnuts (or crush in a mortar); mix in nettle stock and vinegar.

Combine the dressing with nettles.

Serve sprinkled with finely chopped parsley and spring onions.

Nettle Salad

Ingredients:

200g young nettle tops, 100g spring onions, 2 eggs, 4 radishes, 5-6 olives, 50ml olive oil, 1tbs lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Method:

Put nettles in boiling water and cook for 3min, drain, cool and chop.

Hard boil and chop eggs, chop onions, slice radishes into circles, cut olives in halves.

To make a dressing: mix olive oil and lemon juice.

Combine all the ingredients and add the dressing.

Nettle Pesto

Ingredients:

200g young nettle tops, 50g pine nuts or walnuts, 25-50ml olive oil, 50g Parmesan cheese, 1 cloves garlic, salt to taste.

Method:

Put nettle tops in boiling water, cook for 3min, drain, cool and chop.

Grate Parmesan cheese and chop garlic.

Blend all the ingredients in a blender.

Nettle Soup

Ingredients:

250g young nettle tops, 4tbs wheat flour, 75g butter, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Method:

Put nettle tops in boiling water and cook for 1min.

Drain, reserving some nettle stock.

Cool and puree in a blender.

Rub together flour and butter, and add nettle stock to bring to the consistency of thick cream.

Add pureed nettles, bring to boil and cook for 5min.

Serve with croutons (optional).

Nettle Spaghetti

Ingredients:

400 spaghetti, 300g young nettle tops, 3 cloves garlic, 3 shallots, 300ml double cream, 30g butter, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, 4 fresh organic egg yolks to serve.

Method:

Put nettle tops in boiling water for 1min, drain and immediately put in water with ice.

Finely chop garlic and shallots.

Melt butter in a pan, add garlic and shallots, and cook gently for 10 minutes.

Add nettles to the pan with cooked garlic and shallots, and heat. Add cream, salt and pepper.

Cool the mixture and puree in a blender.

Cook pasta in salted water according to instructions and drain.

Add the sauce and combine it with pasta.

Put pasta on heated plates and put a raw egg yolk on top of each portion.

Sprinkle egg yolks with salt and serve.

Nettle Omelette

Ingredients:

200g young nettle tops, 1 medium-size onion, 4 eggs, 1tbs olive oil, 50-70ml milk or cream, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Sour cream to serve.

Method:

Put nettles in boiling water and cook for 3min. Drain, cool and chop finely.

Chop the onion and cook in olive oil until soft.

Add the nettles.

Combine eggs, milk, salt and pepper, and whip lightly with a fork.

Add the egg mixture to the pan with nettles. Cook until set, but soft.

Put on a serving plate, cut into portions and serve with sour cream in a separate bowl to be added to taste.

Cooking with nettles: nettles in a colander.

Who should avoid eating nettles

Nettles should not be consumed in pregnancy, by people with high blood pressure, those with a tendency to blood clotting, and those with conditions causing abnormal uterine bleeding. This is because nettles have strong blood-clotting properties. In the past they were used to stop bleeding and to heal wounds.

Raw nettle in large quantities can upset kidneys.

Like many plants, including parsley and celery, nettle temporarily increases sensitivity to sun, so in the summer it is best to wear a sunscreen.

Image credits: ‘another great spring vegetable’ (nettles in a colander) by benketaro.

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