Depending on where you are, chances are it’s almost Spring—which means that nettle season is here! If you know how to handle nettles they can be the most delicious and beneficial of ingredients.
Armed with a good pair of gardening gloves (check for holes!) and a couple of stout plastic bags we recently set off to find a crop of pretty green shoots, peeking through the forest floor in anticipation of warmer weather. We also had scissors with us so as to be able to carefully cut the small plant (which measures ideally between 2 to 4 inches). It’s also important to harvest selectively: leave some leaves in place, without damaging the taproot, to still allow some new growth.
Foraging for nettles is relatively easy. All you have to do is look for the tall, thin woody stalks, left over from last year’s fully grown plant, which are sentinels for the new growth. There’s no shortage of good information online as far as what to do with them. Although, “handle with care is a priority!” Exposure to heat, whether in pot or pan, will quickly render the stinging follicles harmless. If you’re dexterous in the kitchen, a large pair of tongs is the easiest way to place them in the sink for rinsing (just minor dirt usually, no bugs!) and removing for draining. Just don’t touch …
I like to just sautée nettles plain in oil with a little garlic and a knob of butter. But if I have the time, I prefer to blanche them before prepping to put into a nettle risotto. In this way you get a lot more use out of the young plants. First of all, you’ll wind up with a very beneficial nettle tea from the saved water post-blanching (which you can refrigerate or freeze for later use). But, also, if you squeeze the nettles out in your hand before dicing them, and catch the juice, you will wind up with a truly delicious nectar, bursting with vibrant nettle flavour—that tastes mineral-y, even slightly nutty—and absolutely wonderful. Wine pairing for nettle risotto? Crisp and clean (relatively) budget priced drops such as Dolimiti Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio 2011 (BCLS $15.99, 87 pts). Or, for a few dollars more, and a great match, head Down Under to discover Wakefield Clare Valley Riesling 2011—mineral toned Riesling with a burst of lemon-lime wrapped in keen acidity with lingering citrus zest—that, given the quality, won’t sting you too hard in the wallet… BCLS $22. 90 pts.