Foraging: Nettles

The art of foraging can be intriguing, as well as a little worrying. We will introduce you to some easy ways to get started that anyone can do, easily and without fear, and then we will show you how to make use of your free harvest!  We will start this mini series with stinging nettles.

A couple of general foraging warnings to digest before we start; Don’t eat anything that you cannot identify with 101% certainty. Don’t go near ANY mushrooms unless you have been on a training course. Don’t eat anything in excess. You can go beyond these rules if you have acquired the knowledge of experts, but what we want to do on this blog is to give you an easy entry into useful foraging that will give you the confidence to take part.

So, back to our friend the stinging nettle.  We were probably all introduced to these as children, so identification is pretty easy isn’t it?  If it stings you, you can eat it and get your own back! It grows everywhere, so it’s easy to find too. Find a nice clean patch away from roads and animals. The bottom of your garden is a likely place to start looking!

You want to pick the top set of leaves only – they are the newest and freshest growth. Avoid any tips that look yellow in colour. Best to wear a rubber or similar glove and just pluck off the top 2-4 small leaves (see photo) and pop them into a bag with the little bit of stalk they are attached to. That’s it. Spring is a good time to pick nettles. Stop picking once you see flower spikes appearing in the summer. Re-growth coming up after being strimmed at any time is also good picking!

Why nettles? They are VERY nutritious. Just because you don’t see them in the shops doesn’t mean they are not good for you. They are just not a commercial food product (Yet!). They are very high in fibre, Protein, Vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron, and good for your bones, heart, and various conditions which you can research further. Compared to most plant foods they are actually more nutritious than almost anything available.

We prepare them by washing and then boiling or steaming for a few minutes, to deactivate the stings. Squeeze any excess water out with your hands when they’ve cooled and then you can add them to anything you like. They are great in soups. They also make an interesting pizza topping like spinach. You can mix some in with your regular greens, or disguise them in any recipe, like a bolognese or curry if you chop them up.

Let’s now make something novel with them to stretch your culinary repertoire; I like making “Strettine” pasta, an Italian springtime tonic food. Two ingredients –  plain flour and nettles. A lovely green pasta ensues, enriched with plant power! You can use it straight away, or dry it for a rainy day or share some with your friends. If you don’t have a pasta machine, you can always ask your friends or neighbours. Unused pasta machines are lurking in many a dark cupboard. Rediscover one! This is playdough for kids and adults alike. Just look at what Italians do with this stuff. You can too! If you can’t find a machine, you can roll it thin yourself, or make it by hand into orecchiette or similar. Here’s my machine made Strettine, doused in a little flour to stop it sticking whilst it dries out (outdoors in the sun if you can)

I made some ravioli stuffing with leftover nettles, by adding some sweet potato and a little cheese, and a sprinkle of nutmeg. Pesto is a good addition too. These will look very posh when served up. Try making tortellini too which are also stuffed, and great fun to make. There are plenty of demos via Google.

This nettle pasta is super nutritious compared to any bought versions. Remember that Pasta packaging is not recyclable, and it’s a bulky product to transport, especially as most of it is made in Italy. How much do you think a bag of pasta actually costs to make, when you take off manufacturing, forced drying (uses lots of heat energy), packaging, transport and storage? Pennies probably. The majority of this cost directly impacts Climate Change. You can now make your own fresh pasta, boost your nutrition, save money, and soften your carbon footprint all in one go. It’s a win/win/win/win situation !