Sunday, 23 March 2014

Free lunch - grasp the nettle!

This time last year it was snowing! Can you believe it? 
Exactly a year ago I was sitting at my pc, watching fat flakes fall softly on my little back garden and wondering if I'd ever get anything started on my allotment.
This year, we have been blessed with a super sunny March, and though today's wind has an icy edge to it, my two-hour dog walk this morning was a proper tonic for the soul.
The birds were in fine voice, I heard woodpeckers, the woods were beginning to smell all fresh and garlicky and I decided to harvest a free lunch, to prolong my time in the sunshine.
Nettles! Not strictly a crop which I grown on my allotment (well, not intentionally!) but I do love to take advantage of free food whenever and wherever it presents itself!
And on such a gloriously verdant Sunday, positively pulsating with Spring-iness, it seemed appropriate to go home and make nettle soup.

Nettles are supposed to be extremely good for you, too. They're credited with helping detox the kidneys, improving the immune system, lowering blood pressure and aiding sufferers of rheumatism and arthritis. I've even heard claims that nettles are good for the libido too, but given they are abundant in Spring, when the sap rises, maybe that's just...coincidence ;)?
Anyway, I'm partial to the earthy, almost citrussy tang of nettles!

To pick the prickly little pesky plants you will need a pair of gloves and a carrier bag.
Pick only the young fresh nettle tops . Feb/March are the ideal months for nettle - any later and they get stringy and tough. And definitely not when in flower. You can also steep dry or fresh leaves in boiling water to make a healthy tea or add to stews/soups etc later. Or blanch them and try as a pesto. Hugh F-W suggests using them as a spinach substitute in spanakopita...I must try and make this sometime.

There are loads of recipes out there - from witchy brews to more mainstream chefs such as Jamie Oliver.This is the one I use - sweet and simple.
It's a rich spinachy green and earthy and velvety to the taste.
Around 150g nettle tops
A decent knob of butter 

1 onion, peeled chopped

1 medium leek, finely slice
1 small potato chopped.
A celery stick, chopped
A tablespoon of white rice, like basmati 
1 litre vegetable stock 
salt and pepper 
Some double cream to swirl in! 
Pick over the nettles - gloves on! Wash them thoroughly and remove tough stalks. you're just using the tips really.....
Melt the butter in a large pan, add the onion, leek, potato celery and garlic, cover and sweat for about 10 minutes, stirring a few times, until leeks etc are soft.
Add 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 black pepper.
I like to swirl in some double cream and chopped herbs to serve. I dare say natural yoghurt would work as well!