[image by Fiona Hallinan]
Poorly timed perhaps, as the best of spring’s nettles will be behind us now. They’ll not be going anywhere though, just toughening up a little. Late summer will see new growth, so in the meantime it’d be best to keep to the tender top leaves.
Their primary significance is the fact that they’re free, growing wild and abundant across the country. However, there is particular value in their herbal, melancholy flavour. Their stinging armour – cause for many a whine on long country walks as a nipper – will not recede until they are cooked, so gloves of some form are a must.
Grilled nettle bread
It’s similar to a flat bread this, and you can use a basic flatbread recipe for the dough. I prefer it not quite flat though. A good half inch thickness, will give a crisp outside and a doughy inside. It can be grilled above a fire, dry fried on a griddle pan, or baked in the oven. The success will lie in mastery of the heat source. Not smoking hot, but not far behind.
I used a mug full of flour with what would have been a little over half that of water and half a teaspoon of yeast.
Leave the yeast, to dissolve and begin to activate, with warm water (in the region of half the amount of flour) for ten minutes or so.
Sift the flour into a bowl. Pour in the yeasty water slowly, mixing as you do so.Add also a generous pinch of salt and swig of olive oil. Knead the mixture on a well floured surface for five minutes or so, by which time it should no longer be tacky but soft and elastic. If it’s a bit too tight though add a few drops of water and if a bit too loose add a little flour. Leave the dough in the bowl, covered in a tea towel, to rise for two hours in a warm cupboard.
Boil your nettles for just under a minute and shock them in ice water. Squeeze out as much water as possible and chop them roughly.
When the dough has risen, mix through the nettles. Separate into balls and roll (again on a well floured surface) into half-inch-thick ovals. Let them rest for five minutes or so and then cook. Above the embers of a fire would be my preference. But they can be cooked on a not quite smoking griddle pan or on a baking tray in an oven of 220 C degrees. Eat them straight away, ripping and dipped into hot butter.
Oats, nettles and bacon
A simple dish this one, but a few things going on at once. Perhaps prepare the oats and nettles before frying the bacon and poaching the eggs.
Bake some oats in a medium oven until browning. Then make porridge with them with milk and/or water.
Having washed your nettles, pop them, still dripping, in a hot pan. Season and stir, To get them fully tender you’ll maybe need to add a drop more water. When ready, chop them up and then pop them back in the pan and stir through some butter.
Fry your bacon (preferably smoked and streaky) and serve alongside the porridge and nettles and a poached egg.
Yoghurt jelly with nettles, almonds and honey
Quite a long winded preparation for this pudding, but a justifiable one, the result is a happy, perhaps surprising, harmony.
For the jelly you’ll need cream, milk and yoghurt. Its best for each, not to be tempted by any low fat varieties, a fine jelly will need double cream, whole milk, and fully fatty yoghurt. You’ll also need gelatine, you can use sheets or the powder but the former seems to be the more trustworthy. Use maybe just under half the amount suggested to make a regular jelly. I used one sheet for a quarter litre of jelly and it was about right: a quivering mass that will melt in the warmth of the mouth.
Best to start with the nettles. Pick the perkiest of them for frying. Heat a pan, half full of neutral oil, slowly and test it by dipping a nettle in it. The oil will be ready when the nettle fizzes. Pop in all your nettles and stir gently. Once the hissing and fizzing has subsided they’ll be ready. Slotted spoon them onto a paper towel and shake over icing sugar through a sieve. Blanch the rest of your nettles in sugary, boiling water until tender. Then shock in ice water, drain and pound, pulse or finely chop them.
Meanwhile have your almonds, skins on, baking in a not-too-hot oven. They’ll be ready when opening the oven door meets you with a smack of their oily, nutty aromas – fifteen minutes or so.
Heat up an equal quantity of cream and milk and mix in some gelatine. Strain it through a seive and leave to set in the fridge or freezer. When it’s thickening up give it a whisk until smooth and then stir in your yogurt – twice as much as the cream/milk mixture – and the blanched nettles. Leave it to set, covered, in the fridge for at least a couple of hours. If you are going to leave it for a long while then it’d be best to hold the frying of the nettles until closer to eating time.
You can let it set as one and serve in spoonfuls or in individual cups which will need a dip in hot water before flopping out.
Serve with the backed almonds, fried nettles and a drizzle of honey.