Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), so feared by grizzling toddlers, are nutritious and (ahem) wildly versatile. They are deeply ingrained in folklore, and have been used in many of ways for thousands of years; as a medicinal herb, as a food, made into booze, spun and woven to make fabric. They contains high levels of vitamin C, as well as iron. They are also delicious. The sting is a small price to pay for such riches.
I hazard that you already know what nettles look like, though as ever don’t eat anything if you are unsure. If you are unsure: they have pointed, heart-shaped leaves, which grow opposite each other from an upright stem. They are perennial and vary in size from small to very tall, some varieties reaching over one metre. The stem and leaves are covered in fine hairs, and it is these that deliver the eponymous sting (which will also confirm identity); a cocktail of toxins including histamines and formic acid. There are some lookalikes, such as purple dead-nettle, but these are also edible. They are to be found growing pretty much everywhere – waste ground, gardens, woodland. Find a patch away from the road and away from dogs. Suit up! It is advisable (and elegant) to wear long gloves, and certainly trousers (I have learned to my detriment that shorts are not suitable foraging attire).
Nettles can be found from early spring onwards, and are so abundant that there is little danger of over-picking, though as ever be mindful of the local ecology as well as any local by-laws. It is vital to be aware of the impact any foraging may have, as some plants and fungi are endangered or regionally rare, and all (save for some invasive species) are an integral part of the ecosystem in which they are to be found.
As the season goes on the stem and leaves become larger and tougher, so pick the tops as these are more tender. Nettles will also grow back, so it is possible to affect a type of wild cultivation and extend the season, by cutting them back and waiting. Do not eat them raw. Once the nettle starts to flower, stop picking. They become tough and fibrous, and the plant produces a potentially harmful substance.
Cooking removes the sting, and nettles may be treated in much the same way as spinach (indeed the flavour is similar). Steamed and buttered, they are a great side dish. They may be used in quiches, soups, bubble and squeak, stews, and brewed into a wonderful, herby, sparkling ‘beer’. Here I have used them in a potato dumpling. Nettle dumplings are to be found in cuisines all across Europe and beyond, which shows how important nettles have been as a food source over the centuries. I have also garnished with crisped-up nettles, which are a little like kale crisps though do not hold their crunch for long, so must be used straight away.
Ingredients (makes around 40 dumplings)
200g nettle tops
1kg large floury potatoes, such as Maris Piper
250g plain flour (plus a little more for coating, working the dough etc)
3 egg yolks
50g salted butter
50g Parmesan cheese
Wash the potatoes, prick them a couple of times, and bake in a medium oven for around an hour, or until cooked through. Whilst they are cooking, wash the nettle tops (gloves!) and shake them dry. Snip off a few of the larger leaves and set aside. Wilt down the remainder in a pan until soft, adding a good pinch of salt. This will remove the sting. When cooked, place in a colander in the sink to drain the liquid that has exuded from them. Once they have cooled a little, give them a good squeeze to remove any more liquid, chop finely, and set aside.
Take the large leaves you have reserved, place them on some greaseproof paper on an oven tray, sprinkle a little oil and salt on them, and pop them in the oven with the potatoes for around ten minutes, until completely crisped. Take out and reserve.
Once the potatoes are done, take them out of the oven and let them cool a little. You need to make the dough for the dumplings whilst the potatoes are still hot, so handle them as soon as they are at a temperature you can stand. Cut them in half and scoop out the flesh (the skins can be set aside for filling with cheese and grilling, or similar), and mash well (use a ricer if you have one), being careful to get rid of any lumps.
Put a large pan of salted water on to boil.
Mix together the flour, chopped wilted nettles, mashed potato, and egg yolks until combined (using your hands will work best but is very messy), although don’t over-work the dough as you’ll end up with chewy dumplings. Add a pinch salt and pepper, and taste to check the seasoning. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface (in fact, flour everything or it gets pretty sticky pretty quickly) and shape into a large square. Cut the square into four, horizontally. Shape each of these cut lengths into long sausages. Cut each of these sausages into ten. Give these final pieces a quick roll into a ball shape, and then press lightly with a fork to get a little ‘patty’ shape.
Place the dumplings, around ten at time so as to not overcrowd the pan, into the boiling water, and cook until they bob to the surface. Remove from the water and set aside whilst you cook the next batch. When they’re all cooked, add a little flour to coat and prevent them from clumping together. Place a non-stick pan on a medium high heat, add the butter and melt until just starting to foam. Add however many dumplings you want to cook (again don’t overcrowd, cook in batches if necessary) and cook until golden, turning and basting a couple of times. Any dumplings you don’t fry straight away can be frozen for another time.
When the dumplings are done, serve in a bowl, pouring over the butter from the pan, and finish with grated Parmesan and the nettle chips (I’ve used borage flowers as well, because they’re taking over my garden). Serve as many per person as you wish (they are quite filling). These little dumplings are pretty versatile, and could be served with different sauces if wished; a simple tomato sauce, or a little reduced chicken stock. Eat with glass of something chilled to hand.