Thursday, 15 May 2014

Nettles. If you can't beat them, eat them!

The Veg Growers Group has now been meeting for six months and has gone from strength to strength. Each month we have a Vegetable of the Month, but choosing one for May was a challenge. For May is bang in the middle of the hungry gap. This year's crops are mere seedlings and small plants, only just going out into the garden. And stores from last year won't keep any longer. The potatoes are softened and have tentacle-like sprouts reaching out into the dark. Most of the pumpkins have been eaten or gone rotten and the onions aren't what they were.Having said that, I am already eating asparagus and rhubarb aplenty and I have beautiful fresh radishes, turnips and lettuces in the polytunnel. Jams and chutneys are always on tap and we have already taken honey from the bees this year. We have eggs coming out of our ears and can always treat ourselves to a chicken, guinea fowl or duck.

And if all that's not quite enough to keep us going, thankfully these days we have freezers. So even in the hungry gap visits to the supermarket are infrequent.
But there is another way to fill a hungry tum. For while we are still procrastinating over whether or not to put our tender young vegetables out into the big wide world of the veg plot, our native plants (also sometimes known as weeds) have been happily growing away for a couple of months.

There is one plant in particular which seems to do remarkably well on our fenland soil. I seem to be particularly adept at growing it. Fortunately it's an excellent plant for bugs such as aphids, which attract more garden-friendly predators such as ladybirds and hoverflies.

However there's a sting in the tail. For the humble stinging nettle crops up everywhere and takes persistence to control. As well as forming impenetrable patches, it bites when it's least expected, as you are peacefully going about your daily garden pottering.
But there is a solution. Bite back!
For nettles are indeed very tasty. They can be substituted into any recipe which uses spinach and have a pleasantly distinctive, almost nutty flavour.

233g of nettles
They should be harvested wearing thick gloves (and make sure your wrists aren't exposed, for however careful you are, you'll eventually get stung). Only young leaves should be used as the older, darker ones get a bit tough. Young leaves can be found when the plants first emerge early in the year, or taken from the top of each plant, but before the nettles come into flower. If you simply mow down your nettles though, you'll get a vigorous regrowth of fresh young leaves. This also leads those friendly insect predators to move to your vegetable plants to seek out aphids.
Now, you're probably thinking about hippy nettle tea and nettle soup. You may even have tried them and not liked them. All I can say is that I have four delicious recipes for you and urge you to give them a try.

All nettle recipes start off with picking a stack of nettles. One portion is about half a plastic bag full. Wash the leaves thoroughly. I like to leave them in soak for a while with a little salt added to the water to help drive off the bugs. Don't be put off. This really is worth it.
After that, plunge the leaves into boiling water for 3 - 5 minutes, then drain and squeeze out the water, as you would with spinach - put them into a colander and press out the liquid with the back of a wooden spoon.
They are now completely safe to touch and can be used in any recipe.
The four recipes I have for you today are all carefully selected and adapted from the internet. They are: Garlicky Nettle Pesto; Nettle Gnocchi (or gnettle gnocchi if you prefer); Nettle Bread; and Sweet Potato and Nettle Soup. Give them a try, though you may have to mow your nettles first or wait till next spring.

Garlicky Nettle Pesto
Delicious as a light coating for pasta. If you make a double portion, you can freeze this in ice cube trays too. 
1/2 pound nettles
4 large garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (I used walnuts, as that's what I had in)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/4 cups extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (or cheap substitute)

Add the nettles to a large pot of boiling salted water stirring continuously, for 2 minutes.(This denatures their sting.) Drain into a colander and squeeze out the water. You’ll have about a cup of cooked, squished nettles.
Pasta tossed in garlicky nettle pesto.

Finely chop the garlic, pine nuts (or walnuts), salt and pepper to taste. You can do this in a food processor. Add the nettles, breaking them up as you drop them in, and the lemon juice and whizz until finely chopped. Gradually add the oil in a slow, steady stream, and process until smooth. Add the cheese, pulse briefly, and season to taste with additional salt, pepper, or lemon juice.

Stinging Nettle Gnocchi
Something a little different. Go on, give it a try! For this recipe you do need to use a floury potato (I used King Edwards), to avoid using too much flour in the recipe. It is possible to freeze the uncooked Stinging Nettle gnocchi (after they have been shaped and lightly dusted in flour to stop them sticking) for a week or two and then cooking them from frozen.

For the gnocchi:
600g potatoes, peeled and cut into even-sized pieces
150g well-washed nettle tops
2 egg yolks
Salt and pepper
120g plain flour

For the Sage Butter
75g butter
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced

12 sage leaves, finely shredded
A Little Extra Topping
50g freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or substitute)
Few chopped nuts of your choice

Boil the potatoes, drain and mash really well.
Put about a centimetre of water in the bottom of a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the nettle tops and cook for 5 minutes and then quickly cool them under cold running water. Tip into a sieve and squeeze out all the liquid with the back of a wooden spoon. Place in a food processor and chop finely then stir them into the potatoes.
Add the 2 egg yolks and season well.
The dough for the gnocchi
Add most of the flour and quickly mix it in. The secret of good gnocchi is to use sufficient flour to hold the mixture together but not too much that they become heavy. If the dough does not feel too sticky, break off a piece and roll it into a ball, drop it into boiling water to test. If after a few minutes it floats to the top without losing its shape, then do not add more flour. To shape the rest, break off individual pieces and roll them into a ball (about 2cm across) with floured hands, placing each finished one on a floured plate.

Nettle Gnocchi and Garlicky Nettle Pesto ready for the freezer
Drop half the gnocchi into a large saucepan of boiling water and cook until they have all floated to the surface. Leave them to cook for a further 10 seconds, then lift them out with a slotted spoon on to a hot plate lined with kitchen paper. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi.

While the gnocchi are cooking, place the butter, garlic and sage in a small saucepan and fry for 1-2 minutes. Divide the gnocchi between four plates, pour over the sauce and sprinkle over the parmesan and nuts. Serve immediately.
Instead of sage butter the gnocchi could be served with a simple tomato sauce or floated on a bowl of delicious soup, such as the recipe below.

Fragrant Nettle and Chive bread
Ingredients to make two small 1 lb loaves

100 g nettle leaves
 a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
 2 tsp unsalted butter
 2 heaped tsp finely chopped
 fresh chives
 500 g strong white bread flour
 2 tsp salt
 7 g (1 sachet) fast-action dried yeast
 270 ml  water
 salt & freshly ground black pepper

First wash the nettles thoroughly, wearing rubber gloves. Add the nettles to a pan of boiling salted water and blanch for 2-3 minutes. Leave to cool, roughly chop the leaves, season with salt and freshly grated nutmeg, and set aside until later.
Melt the butter in another pan, then toss in the chives and stir. The aim is not to cook the chives, just to warm them – this really brings out the flavour. Put the chives aside.
Combine the flour, salt, chives and prepared nettles in a bowl. Then add the yeast and mix in. Make a well in the centre. Add the water to the well and bring together into a dough with your hands or with a spatula. Turn the dough out on to a clean kitchen surface and knead for 10 minutes.
Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave to prove until doubled in size
(60-90 mins). Turn the dough out on to a clean surface and knock it back. Divide into two equal portions, then shape it into loaves and place in two lightly oiled 1 lb loaf tins – or flowerpots. Cover and allow to prove again for 60—80 minutes. The loaves should come to just below the rims of the tins or have increased by two-thirds.
Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F/Gas 7) and put a roasting tray in the bottom. When ready to bake, place the loaves in the oven and steam by adding cold water to the tray. After 20 minutes remove the loaves from the tins, then return them to the oven and cook for a further eight minutes, until golden-topped and the base of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.
Sweet Potato, Nettle and Chickpea Soup

This is a soup with substance, a filling bowlful of hearty satisfaction. Pepped up with the warmth of some aromatic spices it is perfect for those evenings when the sun dips a little too fast leaving the seven o’clock air with a surprising, biting chill.

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
A baking potato, peeled and diced
Two onions, sliced
As much garlic as you wish
Spices: cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, star anise – take your pick
Lots of fresh nettle tops
A tin of chickpeas
Vegetable stock, about 3 pints

Fry off your chosen spices in a little oil until they in turn start to release their oils. The smell will change, just take care not to burn them else you will add a bitter note to the soup. Crush them in a pestle and mortar then add the garlic.

Fry the onion until soft then add the potato (both sweet and regular). Give it a little colour then add the spices and garlic before covering with stock. Leave to simmer until the potatoes are cooked then blend and pass through a sieve to remove and rogue crunchy spices.
Wash and pick over the nettles. Cook in plenty of rapidly boiling, salted water then leave to drain in a colander or sieve. Chop the nettles then add to the soup along with a can of drained chickpeas. Heat through and serve with nettle bread or gnocchi.
Some of the Veg Group enjoying a nettle feast.
Quote of the night "It looks worse than it tastes"!!!
Many were more positive though.

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