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Seasonal Pantry: Now popular, nettles have long history


Nettles, it seems, have entered the mainstream. No one questions their appearance on restaurant menus anymore and it is increasingly easy to find them at farmers markets. This year, Triple T Farms of east Santa Rosa was the first vendor to bring them to local farmers markets. Now several farmers have them.

Although nettles seem like a new discovery, something that foodies and foragers have brought to us, they actually have a long culinary history. They have been used for centuries in both food and drink. Nettle tisanes, cordials and tinctures are thought to have healing properties that help with seasonal allergies and a range of other ailments, including insect stings, arthritis, anemia, gout, diabetes and all manner of male health issues. Nettles increase lactation in nursing mothers, have been used in herbal charms and can be used on the hair, to make it glisten and to control dandruff.

Nettles also are delicious and full of nutrients, including a substantial amount of protein, along with Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium and other trace nutrients, which our human ancestors knew intuitively. Whenever I use them, I wonder who discovered this, who first understood that their stinging quality — due to tiny hollow fibers that shoot irritants into our skin when we touch them raw — would vanished with heat.

For years, I have blanched nettles in water before cooking with them but am now discarding this practice, depending on what I am making, thanks to Nancy Skall of Middleton Farm, who has some of the finest nettles around, broad leaves already off their stems. When she makes nettle frittata, she puts the nettles directly into the egg mixture and the heat takes care of the rest. One of my favorite ways to enjoy nettles is in soup and now I just plunge them into the hot stock, happy that I am not losing any of their goodness.

For nettle recipes from this column's archives, visit "Eat This Now" at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com, where you'll find my favorite nettle soup with several variations and fresh nettle pasta with nettle butter and dry Jack cheese.

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In this recipe, the nettles must be blanched before using, but you can do so in the water in which you will cook the polenta and thus save all the good nutrients that otherwise would be lost.

<strong>Nettle Pesto with Creamy Polenta</strong>

Makes 4 to 6 servings

<em>— Kosher salt</em>

<em> 4 cups, loosely packed, nettle leaves</em>

<em> 1 cup coarse-ground polenta or cornmeal</em>

<em> — Boiling water, as needed</em>

<em> 3 to 4 garlic cloves (preferably fresh spring garlic), peeled and crushed</em>

<em> 1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves, chopped</em>

<em> 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed</em>

<em> 4 tablespoons butter</em>

<em> 1 cup grated dry Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano or similar cheese</em>

<em> 3 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted (optional, see Note below)</em>

Pour 4 cups of water into a large heavy pot and season fairly generously with salt, about

2 to 3 teaspoons. Bring to a boil over high heat and when the water reaches a rolling boil, add the nettles, stir and then use tongs to remove the nettles, shaking off excess water before transferring them to a clean tea towel. Let cool slightly and then roll the nettle into the tea towel and press out as much water as you can. Set aside.

With the water at a rolling boil, add the polenta in a thin stream, stirring in the same direction. Continue to stir until the polenta begins to thicken, decrease the heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until the polenta is tender, about 30 minutes or so. If the polenta seems too thick, add boiling water, 1/4 cup at a time, until it loosens.

While the polenta cooks, prepare the pesto. First, put the garlic into a suribachi or large mortar and crush it with a wooden pestle. Season with a little salt. Chop the blanched nettles and add them to the container and use the wooden pestle to mix and crush with the garlic. Add the parsley, mixing and crushing until evenly combined.

Taste and correct for salt.

Use a rubber spatula to fold in the olive oil; if the mixture seems too thick, add a bit more. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter, half the cheese and all the pine nuts, if using. Mix thoroughly, cover and set aside.

When the polenta is fully tender, stir in the remaining butter and cheese and stir well.

Ladle into soup plates, top with a very generous dollop of nettle pesto and serve.

If you have leftovers, pour half the polenta into a small loaf pan or other ovenproof container, spread the pesto over it and top with the remaining polenta. Refrigerate and heat in a 325 degree oven to serve.

<em><strong>Note:</strong></em> I don't recommend using pine nuts from China, as they typically contain a type of pine nut not used for food in other parts of the world. Some people, myself included, are sensitive to these nuts, which cause a persistent bitter taste known as "pine mouth," which can last for weeks.

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A frittata makes a great dinner on a spring evening. I like to serve it with a simple green salad and either roasted asparagus or steamed artichokes alongside.

<strong>Nettle Frittata</strong>

Makes 3 to 4 servings

<em>4 duck eggs or 6 chicken eggs, thoroughly beaten</em>

<em> 2 cups, lightly packed, fresh nettle leaves</em>

<em> — Kosher salt</em>

<em> — Black pepper in a mill</em>

<em> 3 tablespoons butter</em>

<em> 1 shallot, minced</em>

<em> 2 garlic cloves, minced</em>

<em> — Creme fraiche, nettle pesto or Italian-style salsa verde</em>

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Add the nettles and 1 tablespoon water to the eggs and season with salt and several turns of black pepper; mix well.

Set a medium nonstick or cast iron pan over medium heat, add the butter and when it is melted add the shallot and saute until soft and fragrant, about 5 to 6 minutes; do not let the shallot brown.

Add the garlic and saute

2 minutes more.

Increase the heat to high, wait 2 minutes and pour in the egg mixture. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until the eggs are just beginning to set. Cover and cook

3 minutes more.

Transfer to the oven and cook, uncovered, for 7 to 12 minutes, until the eggs are fully set and the top is just taking on a bit of color.

Remove from the oven, cool for a few minutes, loosen the edges by slipping a knife around the frittata and carefully slip out onto a flat plate.

Cut into wedges and serve warm with a dollop of creme fraiche, nettle pesto of salsa verde.

<em>Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 &amp;amp; 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</em>