Spectacular stinging nettles

Illustration of a nettle by Socia Hensler

You will surely have noticed, on your walks around the countryside during these budding days of spring, the sheer green abundance of armoured Urtica thrusting through hedgerows, standing guard at gateways or stinging ankles on footpaths. But have you ever thought about gathering them up and turning them into a delicious (and nutritious) meal?

Stinging nettle [Urtica Dioica]

Nettles are one of the vegetable world’s richest sources of iron, making them invaluable for those who may be suffering from anaemia, during menstruation or just for general strength and energy. These plants are incredibly rich in vitamin C, indispensable as a tonic and antioxidant, and great for eczema, skin, hair and eyes. Vegetarians might also take note; nettles are ten percent protein, which is more than any other vegetable with the exception of hemp.

When gathering nettles, soup is my initial inclination but the nettle and sorrel risotto recipe I have included at the end is a great combination of both edible plants.

I am quite evangelical about stock – I sincerely believe it is fundamental to making great soup or risotto and so I have included basic recipes for both chicken and vegetable stock. You can just use bouillon if you wish and I’m sure the results will be delicious but great stock can elevate soup to a world beating standard.

Garlic bread is a perfect accompaniment to nettle soup and if you can find some ramsoms then the recipe further down the page is well worth a try!

Picking

Nettles start picking up steam in our hedgerows from the end of March and are probably at their best through April and the beginning of May. After this time the plants can become a bit course and hairy.

If you are picking nettles from your garden then a strimmer is your friend; strimmed nettles will send up new growth which is perfect for eating – keep harvesting and strimming and they will keep coming!

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall suggests that ‘a carrier bag is the standard measure’ when collecting nettles and I suppose that may suit us all. Wear a pair of substantial gloves if you want, although if you grasp the stem firmly below the top leaves then you can avoid being stung quite successfully. Pick only the tips and first pair of leaves of young green nettles for soup. It must be remembered that from May onward, the nettles may have begun to flower are then best avoided for culinary purposes.

Note: Both the soup and risotto recipes included here have been taken from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall. This is simply because I have tried many recipes and these are the best examples I have found – his method of thickening the soup with rice makes a fantastically light and refined soup.

The stock and butter recipes are my own, hence the rambling, scatter-brained instructions. Forgive me….

Nettle soup 

Serves six

Around 150g nettle tops
30-35g knob of butter
1 onion, peeled chopped
1 large or 2 smallish leeks, trimmed, washed and finely sliced
2 celery sticks, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp white rice, such as basmati
1 litre vegetable (or chicken) stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
6 heaped tbsp thick, plain yoghurt, to finish
1 small bunch chives, to finish

Pick over the nettles, wash them well and discard any tough stalks. Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-low heat, add the onion, leek, celery and garlic, cover and sweat gently for 10 minutes, stirring a few times, until soft but not brown. Add the rice and stock, bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add the nettles, stirring them into the stock as they wilt, and simmer for five minutes or so, until the rice and the nettles are tender (very young nettle tops will need only two to three minutes). Season with plenty of salt and pepper.

Purée the soup in two batches, reheat if necessary and check the seasoning. Serve in warmed bowls, topping each portion with a large dollop of yoghurt and a generous sprinkling of snipped chives.

Chicken stock recipe

Almost any parts of a chicken will do for stock; breast is not really suitable and is kind of a waste to use but legs, drumsticks, carcasses, neck and wings are perfect and flavoursome. Sling them in a large pan with any or all of the following; onions, celery, leeks, carrots, garlic, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme. Cover with cold water and then bring slowly up to a simmer; the slower this process happens the better really, it all depends on how much time you have. When the stock has reached a gentle simmer, keep at a medium temperature and skim off any impurities that have risen to the surface. You can continue to simmer [and skim every now and again] for anything from one to four hours, depending on how chicken-y you like your soup. Strain it through a sieve. This stock would keep in the fridge for up to four days or, if you are making a big batch, divide it up and freeze it in meal sized quantities.

I find it most convenient to make a chicken stock after we have had a Sunday roast. Just throw the carcass into a pan with any root veg and/or herbs you may have left over and proceed as before; it really is very little hassle this way and totally worth it, both in terms of flavour and nutrition. You can have it ticking over whilst you do the washing up….

Vegetable stock recipe

Most vegetables are great for stock although I don’t trust courgettes for this purpose – they just seem wrong. A base of onions and leeks is needed; carrots and celery are good and in Europe they swear on including celeriac, for increased vigour and health. A great secret that was shown to me by an Italian chef in London is the inclusion of a generous handful of frozen peas – they add a wonderful sweetness! Chop all the veggies or grate them into a large pan. Include peppercorns, thyme, garlic and bay leaves for greater depth of flavour. Bring slowly up to a simmer and skim off any impurities that have inevitably shown themselves. Simmer for 40 mins – 1 hour. Leave all the veggies to cool in the stock then strain through a sieve. If you have time, leave all the veggies in the stock overnight and then strain it in the morning; this will give you a far more pronounced vegetable flavour.

Ramsoms/wild garlic [Allium ursinum]

Allium ursinum, also known as ramsom, wild garlic, buckram or bear’s garlic is a wild relative of chives, native to Europe and Asia. The plant is so called because of the fondness the brown bear [Ursus arctos] is said to have for its bulbs.

These plants can be found, often in large, carpet-like quantities, growing in shady deciduous woodlands with moist soil. In Britain, ramsoms are frequently associated with bluebells [Hyacinthoides non-scripta] and are considered to be an Ancient Woodland Indicator [AWI] species.

Ramsom leaves are edible and can be used as a salad, herb, cooked as a vegetable, in soup or as a replacement for basil in pesto. In Cornwall, there is a variety of Cornish Yarg wrapped in wild garlic leaves.

Ramsoms (Wild garlic)
Wld garlic illustration by Sonia Hensler
Ramsoms (Wild garlic)

Ramsom [wild garlic] butter

In my opinion, ramsoms make far superior garlic butter to the one you can make from bulbs. It is more delicate, fresh and assumes a wonderful bright green colour that is ultimately correct to serve in the spring.

A handful of ramsoms [more or less is just preference]

A block of softened butter

A food processor

Method: Blitz it until bright green. If the mix becomes too ‘liquid’ then chill for 20-30 mins before serving. It is quite delicious spread thickly on slices of crusty baguette.

Common sorrel [Rumex acetosa]

Common sorrel [Rumex acetosa] is a perennial herb in the same family as dock leaves. It has been cultivated for centuries across Europe and used in soups and salads.

Sorrel has a zesty, sharp flavour that is often compared to kiwi fruit. They have this wonderful flavour because the plant contains oxalic acid.

Ramsom and sorrel leaves
Wild garlic and sorrel leaves illustration by Sonia Hensler
Ramsom and sorrel leaves

 

Sorrel and nettle risotto

Serves two

Around 100g young nettle tops
About 900ml vegetable (or chicken) stock
30g butter, plus extra to finish
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
175g risotto rice, such as arborio
Sorrel leaves – up to half the quantity of nettles – finely shredded
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
50g finely grated matured goat’s cheese, parmesan (or vegetarian parmesan) or other strong hard cheese, plus extra to serve

Wash the nettles, pick them over and discard the tough stalks. Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a boil, throw in the nettles and bring back to a boil. Blanch for a couple of minutes, then drain. When cool enough to handle, squeeze the nettles to extract as much water as possible and chop finely.

Heat the stock until almost boiling, and then keep warm over a low heat. In a large, heavy-based pan, melt the butter over a medium-low heat. Add the onion and sweat for eight to 10 minutes, until soft and translucent but not browned. Add the rice, stir to coat the grains, pour in a third of the hot stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring, until almost all the stock has been absorbed, then add the chopped nettles and a little more stock. Keep adding stock a bit at a time, making a new addition when the previous one has been absorbed, until the rice is nicely al dente (you may not need all the stock) – around 20 minutes in all – and the texture is loose and creamy. Stir in the sorrel, and season to taste. Dot a little butter over the risotto and sprinkle on the cheese. Cover, leave for a few minutes, then vigorously stir it all in. Serve straight away, with more grated cheese on the table.

….and there you have it – the bounty of the season shall bring the joys of spring! I hope I have encouraged you to try some of these delicious and very nutritious foods that grow wild and in abundance throughout our hedgerows and woodlands in the spring and summer. Time to get picking!

- The National Trust Ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford