The variety in my garden is Utica urens, a small annual nettle that grows all year around but is particularly noticeable in the milder spring and autumn months. Nettles typically thrive in a high nitrogen and phosphorus environments, so it’s no surprise when they pop up in veggie patches as well as amongst cow pats in paddocks. Of course anything growing happily in such fertile soil is going to be highly nutritious and nettles don’t disappoint. They contain vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K. Nettles are high in calcium, magnesium potassium and iron, plus with over 20% protein they are without equal in the leafy vegetable realm.
But it’s not just an underrated edible herb. Nettle leaves have been used to create a dye for military clothing and during world war 1 over 2000 tons of wild nettles were collected to create uniforms from the fibre which is said to rival hemp for durability. Medicinally this wonder herb also excels. The sting is said to increase blood flow and can treat everything from arthritis to gout. Nettle tea is a pain free introduction and is available in lots of supermarkets – especially where Europeans frequent.
The native Australian Yellow Admiral butterfly is also a fan of this introduced ‘weed’ choosing to lay its eggs on the leaves which the larvae eventually consume.
Tender-handed, stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.
Indeed a firm grip will tend to crush the spines while a light brush by the plant will be really painful. Maybe we just need to approach nettles in the same, non ambiguous way Mr Miyagi encourages young Daniel to approach Karate…
The sting comes from amazingly fine needles which actually pierce the skin and administer a combination of chemicals including histamine – hence the allergic type skin reaction. Interestingly, the feel-good chemical serotonin, is also part of the poison. But in an utterly confusing twist of events the same chemical is also the main cause of pain. Confused? Me too, so I shut down Wikipedia and headed out to the garden for some lunch ingredients.
As cute as the above poem is, I wasn’t taking any chances when I ‘double gloved up’ to chase some young nettles for a recipe made on the hop:
Nettle and Lemon Risotto.
Get your stock going first on a back burner (I mean that literally) and put another large pot of hot water on to boil for the nettles.
Arm yourself with sharp secateurs or kitchen shears and a large bowl. Pick younger plants which are less than 20cm tall and make sure they’re not in flower (hence why early spring is a great time to be harvesting).
Using tongs, dunk into the pot of simmering water and then get started on your risotto.
For this recipe I went really basic as I didn’t want too many flavours competing with the nettle.
Finely dice an onion and a clove of garlic.
Sweat in a good lug of olive oil, then add a handful of rice per person (this recipe was about 4)
Stir on medium heat for a few minutes until the rice has absorbed the oil and is glossy.
Add your first ladle of stock (or a splash of white wine) and prepare for the sizzle.
As the liquid is absorbed add more stock.
By now the nettles will be spineless! Remove and drain.
Sprinkle in the finely grated rind of one lemon and stir through. Season with salt and pepper.
Alternate adding stock to the risotto and chopping up the nettles – discard any stalks that don’t dissolve under your knife.
When the rice is mostly cooked (may have just a small amount of ‘bite’ left) add your finely chopped and blanched nettles.
Keep adding stock one ladle at a time until the rice is oozing nicely.
Finish with a knob of butter and pop the lid on for 5 minutes. Finally add big handful of grated parmesan and stir through before serving.
Andrew 1 Nettles 0