Nettles - In Season

NettleThe common Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, was for many generations an important traditional food in Ireland, providing a free and tasty ingredient for soups, purées and sauces in the spring. As they are rich in minerals and vitamins and said to cleanse the blood, nettles were taken as a medicinal herbal tea - for a sort of internal spring cleaning - on three consecutive days, beginning on May Day.

Nettles are easily recognised by their hairy stinging leaves and easy to find in the wild; they grow abundantly in hedgerows and waste ground, including odd corners of domestic gardens where they are usually regarded as a weed. So it would amuse (or bemuse) our ancestors that they are now seen as a superfood and grown by specialist producers as a commercial crop...

Nettles are very nutritious, boasting high levels of Vitamins A and C, iron, and - more surprisingly - protein. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, the fibrous stems were once used to make a high quality linen-like cloth.

Spring is the best time to harvest nettles, before they begin to flower in June, and, although most often associated with soup, they can be used in much the same way as spinach. Pick when young, using gloves; strip the leaves off the stems and wash well before use, especially if picked near roads. (Soaking in water and/or cooking will inactivate the stings in the hairs.)


This basic Nettle Purée is given in Richard Mabey’s foraging classic ‘Food for Free’ and it can be used as the basis for numerous dishes, including nettle soup: “Put washed nettles in a pan, cover and boil gently for about 4 minutes (without adding water). Drain well, add a large knob of butter, plenty of seasoning (perhaps some chopped onion). Simmer for 5 minutes while turning and mashing. The resulting puree is fluffy in texture, but rather insipid to taste, a little like pea-pods. Use puree as a vegetable on its own, spread on toast and serve with a poached egg, or mix into balls with oatmeal and fry in bacon fat.”

Sage Gnocchi, Wild About Nettle Pesto Cream, Garlic PuréeAs the flavour is mild, nettle purée needs to be seasoned carefully and is best partnered with more strongly flavoured ingredients such as onion or garlic, as in this Sage Gnocchi, Wild About Nettle Pesto Cream, Garlic Purée. This recipe was created by chef Derry Clarke of l’Ecrivain Restaurant, Dublin, for the Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards 2015. It was devised to showcase one of the award winners’ products, the delicious Wild About Nettle Pesto - but you could try making your own, using Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalll’s recipe, given below.

Serves 4

for the sage gnocchi

1 egg yolk
50g parmesan
50g olive oil
½ bunch fresh sage
250g mashed potato
75g pasta flour
oil, for frying
for the garlic purée
2 bulbs garlic
500ml milk

for the nettle pesto cream

500ml cream
3 tbsp of Wild About nettle pesto

To make the gnocchi, blend the egg yolk, parmesan cheese, olive oil and sage in a food processor. Mix the potato mash and pasta flour together. Bring together the egg mix and potato mix and knead to form a smooth dough.

Divide the dough into three and roll each piece into a long cylinder, roughly 2cm in diameter, cover and leave in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes. Cut into thick slices and poach in simmering water until the gnocchi float to the top of the water. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge into iced water, then pat dry.

To make the garlic purée, peel the garlic cloves and place in cold water, bring to boil and strain. Repeat this process two more times, then place the garlic in the milk, simmer until the garlic is tender. Strain and blend in a food processor. Add a little more of the milk if the purée is too thick.

To make the nettle pesto cream, pour the cream into a small pan and reduce cream by half over a medium heat, remove and add Wild About nettle pesto and season.

To serve, heat a small frying pan, add a little oil and brown the gnocchi on both sides. Serve the gnocchi in a pool of nettle pesto cream and dot some garlic purée to the side.

At River Cottage Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall makes this Nettle Pesto using local ingredients, to use ‘swirled through soups or tossed through pasta’, or wherever pesto would normally be used.

20g breadcrumbs
100g young nettles (or the top few leaves of older ones)
20g strong Cheddar, grated
½ garlic clove, crushed to a paste with a little salt
150-200ml rapeseed oil
Salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4. Scatter the breadcrumbs on a baking tray and bake for about 10 minutes until dry and golden, checking them frequently towards the end as they burn quite quickly. Tip onto a plate and allow to cool.

Wearing gloves, pick over the nettles, discarding all but the thinnest stalks, then wash well. Fill a bowl with iced water. Find a pan large enough to take the nettles and half-fill it with water.

Bring to the boil and cram in the nettles, pushing them down with a wooden spoon to immerse them. Cook for just 1 minute, then drain through a sieve over a bowl to save the cooking water. Immediately plunge the nettles into the iced water. As soon as they are cold, remove and squeeze them as dry as you can – they will not sting you once they are cooked.

Put the nettles into a food processor along with the breadcrumbs, cheese and garlic. With the machine on low speed, trickle in enough rapeseed oil to make a loose paste. (Alternatively, you can grind the nettles, breadcrumbs, garlic and cheese to a paste using a pestle and mortar, then slowly incorporate the oil.)

Season your pesto with salt and pepper to taste. It is now ready to use. As for the nettle cooking water you saved, drink it – it's too good to waste.

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