March is the season for cooking with nettles. Prickly little buggers, admittedly, but if you can find the time to pick some from the wilder edges of your garden or whilst out on a weekend walk then you’ll be rewarded with something very delicious and even better for you than spinach – which nettles are enough alike that the two can be interchangeable in recipes.
A few nettle dos and don’ts:
- Do only use young nettles – once they’ve started flowering you’ve missed the moment.
- Do keep an eye out wherever you think blackberries were. Nettles tend to grow nearby.
- Don’t use the lower leaves. The small leaves at the top of the stem are the ones you want.
- Don’t even think about picking nettles without a thick pair of (washing up?) gloves to protect your hands from the stings. Arms, wrists and ankle need to be covered too.
- Do pick loads – like spinach, the leaves shrink when cooked.
When you’ve got your nettles back to the kitchen – AND STILL WEARING YOUR GLOVES – separate the juicy leaves from the tough stems. You don’t want those. Wash the leaves well for about 10 minutes. Then blanch in boiling water for a few minutes to remove the sting. Now you can take your gloves off.
Like that they can be added to salads. Nettles make lovely and super-healthy soup with some chicken stock, leeks and garlic (recipe below). Or stir them into a pearl barley risotto about 15 minutes before the end of cooking for something just a little heartier.
Nettle beer used to be a particularly popular drink to make and sell in the Lancashire village of Heysham overlooking Morecambe Bay. There was a ready market of thirsty tourists passing through in need of refreshment. Rather simpler is to make an infusion of the young leaves as nettle tea – it’s not just delicious but also meant to be good for digestion and joints.
Nettle Soup (serves 4)
Approx. 150g nettle tops
Large knob butter
1 celery stick
1 clove garlic
2 small-ish potatoes
4 rashers smoked bacon
1tbsp white wine vinegar
1 litre chicken stock
1 small bunch chives
1. Separate the leaves from the stems, throw away the stems, and thoroughly wash the leaves.
2. Chop the leeks, celery, garlic and potatoes. Melt the butter in a large pan and then add those chopped ingredients. Cover and cook gently for 10 minutes or so until they have softened. Chop up the bacon, add that too and cook with the lid off for another 5 minutes. Stir in the white wine vinegar.
3. Add the stock, bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Then add the nettles and simmer for 4 minutes or so, until the nettles wilt and become tender. Season well.
4. Blend the soup until smooth. Serve with the chopped chives on top (and maybe some soured cream too).