About nettles; their season, how to treat them; and the best solution, a hearty soup
“Don’t use it for a salad unless you are a robust variety of goat”John Wright, author of The Forager’s Calendar, writing in The Sunday Times
It seems a long time, and the same time a very short time since the last time we geared up for nettle collection and making nettle soup.
The Saucy Dressings team made nettle soup for the first time at the end of March 2020, just as The First Lockdown was announced. Lockdown presented a whole new world then. Of course it was worrying on all kinds of levels.
But it could also be constructively shattering. No commuting, no travelling, working from home and the master of one’s own time, those of us lucky enough to live in the country could venture into fields bathed in glorious sunshine during our lunch break, and return to make a hearty, wholesome soup to sustain throughout the rest of the working day. Even those in the city, and (again, fortunate) with a garden, were like as not to find nettles there.
This was good for the soul on so many levels. Getting out into nature, the physical exercise of walking and collecting, the freshness of the produce, the act of cooking, it all combined to nourish and sustain.
Here’s what to do.
Foraging for nettles
You need to forage for nettles. They sting and they droop quickly, so they are only rarely obtainable commercially. You can get them from Totally Wild UK. But they are abundant and easy to find. They are democratic – they grow by hedgerows, in churchyards, in fields and woodlands, by riverbanks, and in urban wastelands. They do well in places with lots of rain… that’d be the British Isles then….
However, you do want to pick them at the right time, either at the very beginning of the season in early spring – late March (this is a very short season – only a couple of weeks);
Or you can pick them later (they aren’t so good) but the important thing is that you need to pick them:
• BEFORE they start to flower – at the time they flower stinging nettles form cystoliths – outgrowths of the cell wall made from calcium carbonate which is bad for your kidneys.
• Also, if the leaves are going purple at the edges, they are probably a bit elderly, and might taste a bit bitter.
• Avoid areas where there might be pollution, either in the air, or in the ground… or even in the water.
Because they sting, you need to pick them wearing rubber gloves and thick, long sleeves. Don’t touch your eyes with your gloved hands! And you will need lots – like spinach they boil down to nothing!
The season may be short – but remember, you can freeze blanched nettles.
Are nettles good for you?
Nettles are full of goodness. Hippocrates, a Greek physician living around 400 BC and known as the father of medicine, came up with 60 uses for nettles. Because they contain compounds with help to reduce inflammation they can help with all kinds of conditions from arthritis, through gout, and on to irritable bowel syndrome.
They are full of all kinds of vitamins as well as minerals such as silicic acid, iron and potassium.
“the nettle stirreth up lust”,John Gerard, Generall Historie of Plantes (1597)
What do nettles taste like?
Nettles taste a bit like the young, fresh, green lovechild of spinach and watercress, or maybe rocket… touch of gooseberry…pleasant, mild, but a bit peppery.
“I learn how to pick nettles without getting stung — the trick is to pinch the tip really hard — and discover they have a fruity, sharp flavour not dissimilar to gooseberry.”Alice Lascelles, in The Financial Times
The soup is suitable for vegetarians if you substitute the chicken stock for vegetable stock.
Serves – 2
- About 230g/8 oz nettle shoots or tops
- 1 banana shallot
- 2 sticks of celery
- 230-50g/8 oz all-purpose potatoes – Yukon Gold or Charlotte give good flavour
- 600 ml/2½ cups chicken stock
- Smoked salt (add this after the stock, and taste as you add)
- A pinch of Urfa pepper flakes, or some freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 5 tbsps double cream
- Couple of sprigs of thyme
- Olive oil for frying
- Black sesame seeds or nigella seeds for garnish
- First of all peel and chop the shallot, and de-string and chop the celery, and fry gently (with olive oil) in a large saucepan.
- Now blanch the nettles. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, and get a big bowl of ice water ready. Then, still wearing the rubber gloves, gather up the nettles and add them to the boiling water for a couple of minutes.
- Use a slotted spoon, or tongs, to lift them out of the boiling water, and into the ice water to refresh them. Then leave them to drain them in a colander.
- Peel and chop the potatoes, and add them to the shallot and celery. Add the stock and the springs of thyme. Simmer for five minutes or so….
- …while you chop the nettles – you don’t need to wear gloves for this, the blanching process gets rid of the sting. Continue to simmer until the potatoes are soft – about 15 minutes.
- Take out the thyme, and blend (I keep the soup in the saucepan, put it in the kitchen sink, and use a stick blender to do this) the soup.
- Add the lemon juice, 3 tbsps of cream, and pepper. Taste. Adjust the seasoning.
- Serve, with the remaining cream swirled over the surface, and some black sesame seeds, or nigella seeds for garnish.
Ideas for culinary uses for stinging nettles
You can do almost anything you can do with spinach with nettles – except use them in a salad. They always need to be blanched first. Don’t eat them raw for obvious reasons! Here are some ideas:
- Make a soup – see above
- Purée them with stock, and some pine nuts, to make a sauce for risotto or pasta
- Squeeze-dried and chopped very fine, you can add them to the flour you use when making fresh tagliatelle
- Use as part of a topping for a pizza… or in a quiche
- Also in omelettes
- Make a frittata with asparagus and wild garlic
- Add to aloo palak (Indian potatoes)
- Fry in olive oil, with garlic, and lemon. Serve with a sprinkling of Parmesan
- Make tea – cover with boiling water, leave for about ten minutes, strain and serve
- They also go well in risottos – see this recipe on the Cucina Italiana website.
What the chefs do – James Knappett and Gill Meller
Before lockdown, Tried & Supplied founder, Domini Hogg, went to James Knappett’s Kitchen Table where a tasting menu based on British traditions and ingredients was on offer. One of the courses consisted of herring cooked in alcoholic vinegar like cerviche with potato, stinging nettle soup, wild flowers and horseradish cream. Highly recommended!
On the other hand, Gill Meller, of the River Cottage in Devon, serves nettles on toast with pollack, wild garlic and poached egg.
Chris Leach of Manteca, blanches his nettles and then plunges them into ice and squeezes them out. Then he blitzes 100g of nettles with two eggs and 400g of flour to make strettine, a long, tagliatelle-like nettle pasta. Hank Shaw gives a great recipe for this on his blog Honest Food – follow this link. Leach (an avid supporter of no-waste) uses leftover leaves to make a purée which he serves with lamb.