I’m not for a moment going to claim that stinging nettles are the best leafy greens in the world. I’d much rather eat Swiss chard or any of the kales or even spinach. That’s not because nettles are in any way nasty, but simply because they’re not as flavorful as many other greens.
That said, there is something cool about using wild plants with a short season, especially those that can cause you pain until you show them who’s boss.
A few weeks ago, in London, my friend Angela Hartnett’s team served Jackie and me a beautifully green nettle risotto with a crisp frog’s leg lollipop. The dish was subtle yet it had the distinctive, mustily vegetal flavor of that fairly common wild leaf. Not long after we got home from our trip, I found nettles in our local farmers market. I bought a couple of bunches, being careful to use a plastic bag to protect my fingers from the plant’s tiny hollow fangs, which deliver a cocktail of chemicals that can cause stinging and itching until the nettles have been cooked.
Once thoroughly washed (use gloves and rinse in a couple of changes of water; the nettles can be pretty dirty and they also will discolor the water, which is normal) and blanched in boiling salted water, nettles are perfectly safe to handle and, more important, to eat. If you live near fields, you may find them growing wild. Pick them before the leaves get big and tough. Discard the larger stems, boil the nettles for about three minutes, drain them and squeeze them dry before going any further. (Remember: They’ve been rendered harmless.)
What I did at this point was to make a sauce for fish: more precisely, for fishcakes made of leftover cod trimmings cooked in seasoned milk; potatoes then cooked in the same milk; a small onion sweated in butter; parsley; an egg and some bread crumbs.
I cooked a minced shallot in butter until tender, then added the cooked nettles, the grated zest of half a lemon and one-third cup of light chicken stock, and warmed this through. (I could have used vegetable broth.) I pureed this in a food processor; a blender would have made a smoother puree, of course, but the food processor result was adequate for the task. Once the seasoning was right and the consistency had been adjusted with stock, that was the sauce: beautiful, deep-green and with that vegetal flavor I mentioned earlier.
That mild vegetal flavor: Yes, I could have made a more strikingly delicious sauce by adding more aromatics, herbs, acidity, cream, butter. But that would have drowned out the special flavor of the nettles. A squirt of lemon juice on the crisp fishcakes was enough by way of enhancement.
What else might I have done with my boiled nettles? Well, I might have tried to copy Angela’s risotto: Make a plain risotto using vegetable broth until the rice is about two-thirds cooked, then switch to the same broth-diluted nettle puree. No, I would not have bothered with the frog’s leg lollipop.
Or I might have made the classic nettle dish: soup. I’d have started by sweating a selection of aromatic vegetables; adding the nettles (more of them, though, to make sure their flavor was well represented in the soup) and broth; pureeing the result; and finishing with herbs (dill would be great) and a little cream. Some cooks might have included a potato, but not me.
So, before it is too late, get out into the fields armed with a picture of a nettle plant, a shopping bag and a pair of rubber gloves.
Or let the farmers market vendor do it for you.