"If you are even mildly keen on the idea of eating local, seasonal ingredients, and not averse to a little foraging, then nettles are a free and easy entry-level option."
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall
Fridays seem to be turning into quiche night in our house for some reason. Maybe it's because quiche goes with white wine very nicely, and Friday is the first night of the Dearman weekend when we allow ourselves a glass or two of wine with dinner. And the wine we had last night was pretty nice - a Clare Valley riesling from Tim Gramp.
Not that I was planning on eating quiche. But I was planning on eating nettles. Yes stinging nettles. Each year we get a big crop up near our gate, clustered around a small group of trees - those parasite things that some people call wild cherries, for a reason I cannot fathom. Anyway there was a goodly crop there and I also had some silver beet in my miniature veggie patch which somehow or other just didn't want to grow. So I decided to pull them all up and to also gather some nettles, and perhaps make some cannelloni. That, however, would require ricotta and I had none. We had also just gone into lockdown again and I was conscious of the need to keep shopping to a minimum. We would be going shopping on Saturday anyway, so I felt that just going to the shops the day before for one item was somewhat irresponsible. So my thoughts turned to the inevitable quiche.
A brief word on nettles though - aren't they pretty? And as you can see there are still a lot there - I took this photo the day after the quiche. I think I've talked about them before but just to remind you. Nettles are used a fair bit in Italian and Greek food I think. I'm not aware of the French doing much with them, but maybe they do. The Italians and the Greeks just use them like spinach and other similar greens. There actually aren't that many here in Australia - well I'm not conscious of having seen many - but there are heaps in England. I got stung many times as a child. And that old wives tale of using the dock leaves that usually grow near the nettles - yes they do - to take away the sting, actually works. Or maybe it was just childish faith. But we never cooked with them. I don't know why because we did forage for various berries.
"[Nettles are] amazing - one of the most abundant and easily gathered of all our wild foods and plentiful in early spring when so few other foods are ready for harvest." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Well it's more late winter here, but the same principal applies. One of the other good things about them is that they are easily recognisable. I'm always nervous about eating something by mistake that is poisonous. For example there are plants growing by the roadside here that look to me like horseradish but I'm not game to pull them up and try. As for mushrooms ...
Nettles, just as an aside, are also great medicinally - scientists have found that they have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, and in the past they were often used as an antiseptic.
I made some nettle soup once, and it was Ok but not standout wonderful, so I have sort of left them alone in recent years. But this year they looked so tempting that I just had to try them out. I donned some rubber gloves and made sure there was no flesh showing, and cut a big bunch of them. Then I stripped the fresh looking leaves off - there were some flower buds too but I assumed they were OK - washed them together with my bits of silver beet, and then boiled them in some water for 5 minutes or so. I don't think the cold water takes away the sting, but the hot certainly does.
By now the greens had shrunk enormously and just look like cooked green things. Drain, squeeze dry and chop - just as you would with spinach.
But I didn't leave my foraging there. For in our cheese drawer were several old bits of brie, so I dug them out, grated them - one bit in particular was really quite hard - mixed with a touch of Parmesan and added this to my quiche mix - 3 eggs and roughly 300ml cream plus a little bit of wholegrain mustard this time. This was finished off with some sliced celery and broccolini, a little bacon and salami, (softened in the microwave), poured into the pastry shell, topped with grated cheddar, cooked for half an hour or so and there you have it - foraged quiche. David was impressed. He does always like quiche whatever is in it, but he seemed to especially like this one. I don't know whether it was the nettles - more likely the bits of brie I think, which you could just taste, but not quite if you know what I mean.
We ate it with a salad - those floppy hydroponic lettuce because iceberg - which I prefer - is so ridiculously expensive at the moment. Maybe I should have completed the foraging by looking for some dandelions.
I don't know why but making this particular quiche from weeds - I count my forlorn silverbeet as weeds too - was enormously satisfying. Why? Something from nothing I suppose, but that sounds stingy and I don't think this is it. After all, today I bought a few Kanzi apples at enormous cost for the apple strudel I am going to make with the grandkids tomorrow. So I can be extravagant. As well as being stingy I could also be accused of being smug I suppose. 'Look at me, I knew that you could make delicious things with nettles'. But I don't think it's even that. It's just satisfaction that something potentially hurtful can be made into something delicious.
So hunt around your garden and give them a go. Anything you can do with spinach or silver beet, you can do with nettles.
And actually Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had another good suggestion - Mozzarella with nettles and lentils - for this you prepare your nettles, as I did for my quiche and then mix with olive oil, vinegar and garlic plus salt and pepper and pour this over your ball of mozzarella and scatter with sliced spring onions and cooked puy lentils. Not sure whether the lentils are necessary but it's an interesting idea.