Valerie O’Connor extols the benefits of the common nettle in a few zesty recipes that will tickle your palate and improve overall health.
Soon it will be time again to go foraging for nettles, those feisty roadside plants that just love to grow in all your favourite walking places.
Who doesn’t have happy memories of falling into beds of these grassy warriors, innocently standing around with their tiny shards at the ready to make your skin go bump and itchy.
If you grab a nettle with confidence it will not sting you, this is because the hairs on the surface will flatten as you hold them tight. Some fiery types even roll them up in a ball and eat them raw, but that’s just showing off.
In the lonely world of the taunted vegan (that’s me by the way, but I do eat butter so I guess I’m not a ‘real’ vegan) people ask me where I get my iron from.
As there is as much iron in green leafy veg as in meat, that’s never been an issue. You can throw all the iron-containing foods into your body as you like, without sufficient vitamin C to help you absorb iron, it’s all going down the toilet.
The ironiest green leafy veg you can get your (gloved) hands on are nettles, and the best part of the news is that you can go out and get these babies for free in fields and places you might go walking.
When picking nettles, do wear thick gloves unless you are trying to impress hippy friends, bring a scissors or secateurs and a basket or thick bag.
Only cut the new tops as the bigger, older leaves can have too much nitrogen which is great for soil, but not so great for us.
The most commonly known benefits of the herb Urtica Diotica are to treat urinary complaints and the plant has anti-inflammatory properties which can help with bladder infections as well as swelling from water retention.
The herb is also linked to helping relieve muscle and joint pains too and putting a cold nettle compress or cold nettle teabag on a cold sore can speed up your recovery.
It was often said that if you had a feed of nettles three times in the year that it would ‘cleanse your blood’ for the year.
Ideally, they are eaten only in March, April and May but you can eat the seeds too and they are considered to be a natural aspirin.
Many of these ideas are familiar in parts of rural Ireland where natural remedies are still considered worthy of their origins and uses.
Nettles also taste great and are a free source of an iron-fuelled green leafy veg. They can be used in place of spinach in many dishes and are great in a risotto too.
One of my favourite ways to use nettles is in pesto as this way they are only briefly cooked and so retain most of their nutrition.
Nettles are full of important fibre too, something we don’t get reminded of enough anymore.
If you want the instant benefits of nettles without cooking them, simply pour some just-boiled water onto a couple of sprigs, cover and leave to infuse for five minutes before drinking the refreshing brew.
Always pick nettles away from busy roads.
For use in the garden, stick some handfuls and throw them into a bucket or huge bottle and top it up with water. Leave the whole brew to concoct into the most foul-smelling, stomach churning green goo.
What nettle tea lacks in finesse it makes up for in nitrogen benefits to the plants you feed with it.
Dilute one part to 10 and use it to water courgettes, tomatoes and other fruiting plants once a week, when they are in fruit.
This is so tasty and easy to make, and a lot cheaper that buying lots of fresh basil to make the traditional version.
You can use this on pasta but it works great worked into a bread dough or on flatbreads, foccacia — the world is your nettle.
Handle nettles with care, using thick rubber gloves at all times until they are cooked.
Wash the nettles and pop them into a pot of boiling water for 3-5 minutes to cook, by now the sting is gone so you can use your bare hands.
Rinse them in a colander and squeeze out as much excess water as you can, then chop them finely.
In a food processor or with a mortar and pestle crush the garlic clove with a little salt, add the pine-nuts or almonds and crush gently, stir in the olive oil and the nettles, add the cheese and stir well.
Maybe add a little salt and black pepper.
This soup is so tasty and easy to make, you feel like Popeye after eating it a bowl.
In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and cook the onion with the potato slowly for about 10 minutes.
Add in the nettles and give them a good stir to wilt, pour on the stock.
Bring everything to a bubble and turn down the heat and allow to cook for 15 minutes, give it a blitz in the blender or with a stick blender.
Season to taste and add a little grated nutmeg.
Decorate with a few fresh wild garlic flowers which are out at the same time.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved