Anyone who has read Anna del Conte’s eponymous (and fabulous) wartime novel will know that food infuses some of the most momentous occasions of her life: the chapter subtitled Risotto with nettles or risotto alle ortiche (echoing the latin urtica doica for our own stinging nettles) combines the recipe with execution, being fired at while cycling and the shooting of partisans. I recommend a more passivist approach to these overlooked and oft-ignored, nutritional powerhouses that we see as a weed: a pair of gloves, a plastic bag and some scissors. Nettles are nature’s own spinach (not that spinach isn’t ‘natural’, I’m just thinking of the stuff in chlorinated bags) and then some.
They are probably the most common of all our wild edible plants and are so good at making use of minerals and nitrogen that they score high in the nourishment stakes, containing impressive levels of vitamins A and C, 2.3 per cent by weight of iron and a massive 5.5 per cent of protein (source: Food For Free, Richard Mabey). They deserve a far higher ranking on our culinary and literal tables, not just as pretty packaging on Yarg cheese, but as a fully integrated, staple on our plates, especially at this time of year when the tender young leaves are appearing alongside wild garlic and the first tentative shoots of bluebells.
Pick the first two or four leaves from the top of the plants, follow del Conte’s recipe for risotto below or Richard Mabey’s simple nettle soup and you will never look at them as a weed again. Or chuck some leaves into boiling water for a tasty and healthy brew and avoid being ‘stung’ for a few poor quality bags in a pretty Twinnings box. I would finish by manipulating a well-known quote, “…do as the Romans do” or did, but they used to flagellate themselves with nettles to keep warm apparently and to ward of rheumatism. Possibly something our brave Cornish surfers could look into? But I digress …
Best time to pick nettles: March, although any time from late February to early June is fine. After June, the older leaves contain crystalline particles which make the texture gritty, giving a bitter taste and possible laxative effect.
- 4 large handfuls nettle tops
- 1 large onion
- 50g/2oz butter
- 2 potatoes (chopped into small cubes)
- 11 (2 pints) vegetable stock
- 1 tablespoon crème fraiche
- Seasoning, including some grated nutmeg
- Strip the nettles from the thicker stalks and wash
- Melt butter and simmer chopped onion until golden
- Add nettles and chopped potatoes, cook for 2/3 minutes
- Add stock and simmer for 20 minutes, using a wooden spoon to crush the potatoes from time to time.
- Add seasoning, a little grated nutmeg and serve with a swirl of crème fraiche or liquidize for a smooth soup. Eat with Baker Tom’s sourdough bread.
Anna del Conte’s Risotto with Nettles (from Risotto with Nettles, A Memoir with Food)
- 300g nettle shoots
- Sea salt
- 2 shallots or 1 small onion, very finely chopped
- 60g unsalted butter
- 1 litre vegetable stock
- 300g Arborio rice
- 4 tbsp double cream
- 60g freshly grated parmesan
Pick the leaves and discard the stalks. Wash in 2 or 3 changes of water. Put nettles in a saucepan with 1 tsp salt and boil over high heat till cooked. Drain but keep the liquid. Put nettles in a sieve over a bowl to catch the liquid.
Sauté the onions (or shallots), very gently, till soft. Heat the stock and keep at simmering point. Squeeze all the liquid out of the nettles into the bowl. Chop them coarsely and add to the onions or shallots. Sauté for a minute, stirring constantly then add the rice and fry till the outside of the grains are translucent.
Pour the nettle liquid into the stock (simmering) and then add about 150ml of stock to the rice. Mix well. Once absorbed, add another ladleful and continue adding and stirring (frequently but not all the time) until the rice is cooked. Should take about 20 mins.
Take the pan off the heat, add the cream, the rest of the butter and the cheese. Leave it to rest for a couple of mins, then stir vigorously to incorporate the butter and cheese so that the risotto becomes creamy. Serve immediately, sprinkling over the remaining cheese.