Stinging Nettles Sting
I should know. Despite being told I should wear gloves to handle nettles, I thought removing a stem or two while wilting them down in a pan couldn’t do too much damage. Oh, how wrong I was. A brush with those little hairs caused my index finger to throb and tingle non-stop for nearly 24-hours. And this is after applying a paste of bi-carb soda and water, which while helping to relieve the pain immensely, eventually wore off. Now every time my left digit hits a key to type this ode to the nettle, I get a little feeling of fizzy tingles that runs from the tip all the way up my finger. I’d hate to ever have the misfortune of falling into a bush of them.
While the nettles put up a good fight, victory in the end was all mine.
I’d picked up a small pouch of nettle tops from a market stall, whose holders actually breed organic beef and sell pre-ordered cuts of meat (alongside warming cups of the best minestrone soup I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating). Nettle is considered a weed for most farmers, so these particular beef farmers receive some incredulous looks from others at the market that can’t understand why anyone would want to buy, let alone eat this pesky plant.
Cooking with ‘weeds’ certainly isn’t a new concept. The Italians have always had cucina povera – cooking of the poor. While many of us aren’t so hard on our luck as to eat weeds to survive, there’s certainly much to be gained from the practice. Nettles have a fresh woody flavour that can be use in any scenario that spinach might normally take part (except when raw!) and the bonus here is that nettles are just as dense with nutrients. The stallholder tells me of customers who add them to smoothies. Now cue my incredulous look.
I added my nettles to make a thick soup with white beans and garlic a la Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the beloved English forager and locavore. I believe he once made nettle beer on one of his shows. I’ve added some other nettle recipes in case you are keen to give them a go – I know I will be. Just be sure to wear gloves or use tongs while they are raw. Once cooked the sting is lost.
White Bean and Nettle Soup
About 100g fresh young nettle tops (around four big handfuls)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 fat clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 x 410g can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
150ml chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Very good extra-virgin olive oil
Place the nettle tops in a sieve and wash them under a cold tap. Tip them out into a pan, along with any extra water, over a medium heat until wilted (about five minutes). Place them on a chopping board and chop roughly.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a low heat. Add the garlic and cook very gently for a minute or two – you don’t want it to colour. Add the beans and stock, and bring to a simmer for five minutes. The idea is to make this a thick soup, so remove half the beans and liquid and place in a blender to blitz into a purée. Return this mixture to the pan and stir to combine with the whole beans. Then stir in the nettles. Season generously with salt and pepper and bring back to a simmer. If the soup is too thick, you can add more stock, but this is meant to be a very thick soup.
Spoon into bowls and swirl a generous amount of your best extra-virgin olive oil over the top. Serve straight away, with chunks of bread.
Adapted from Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall.Share this on: