Wednesday 17 September 2014

Things about nettles – part one of infinity

We’ve got an orchard here, replete with fruit and nut trees. However, standing between us and those trees is a massive sea of nettles. At several points, the things are almost at head height, and they're evil bastards when it comes to stinging.

While decried as weeds and unpleasantly agressive, nettles are actually rather useful plants. They’re a rough indicator of soil type, telling you that you’ve got plenty of nutrients for anything else you may want to grow; an outstanding habitat for insects including stunning butterflies and parasite devouring ladybirds; a great starting ingredient for both DIY plant feed and compost, and a vitamin-rich foodstuff.

You'll definitely want to keep a couple of nettle patches around if you have the space. Just... away from humans. To this end, we've grubbed up many nettles by their long, trailing, but not particulrly firmly anchored roots. We unfortunately got here rather late in the year, so they've already had an opportunity to seed in a few places that'll be hopelessly inconvenient. Roll on next growth. At least you'll be sweet and tender 

We also had a stab at steaming some for greens to have with dinner. Sadly, these specimens were rather mature, so we had to make up for their lack of tenderness with seasoning them to death. Sadly, there's little that can be done about the gritty quality of mature, flower-bearing nettles (caused by calcium carbonate deposits callled cystoliths, according to Wikipedia) but enough cream and garlic hide many sins. They're still packed with nutrients, although you'll want to limit quantity if you have a sensitive urinary tract, apparently. Or just in general. So really, learn from my hopeless optimism and try this recipe with young nettles instead.

Creamed, sautéed nettles

200g nettle leaves 
1 large clove of garlic
100g goat’s fromage blanc

Steam your nettle leaves for 5 minutes – throw them into a pan and pour about a centimetre of boiling water over them, then cook until they’re soft and wilted. You want to avoid cooking any large stalks or flowers. Drain, keeping the water for tea if you like, and set aside the cooked nettles to cool for a while.

Finely chop a clove of garlic. Melt a knob of butter in a pan over a medium head and chuck in the garlic to gently fry off. While this is going on, squeeze out and chop your nettles, before tossing them in with the butter and garlic.

Fry the lot off for another minute or so, then turn the heat right down and spoon in the fromage blanc, stirring it in thoroughly. You can substitute goats’ cream if you want a richer dish – cow’s milk fromage frais should also work, but I don’t get along with the stuff, so can’t confirm.

Cook gently until the fromage blanc is warm, and you’re ready to serve. It goes will with a fried egg and mashed or buttery chopped potatoes. Do yourself a favour and break open the egg yolk right over your nettles. 

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