This post is about using nettles in a risotto, fresh egg green pasta dough and a frittata.
It is also a celebration for the stall called IL FRUTTIVENDOLO in the Queen Victoria Market. This is where the nettles were purchased.
The information about nettles that I have included in this post is by Richard Cornish from the 2022 August 16 issue of The Age Digital Edition. I have included his text in italics. The article was published a couple of days after I made my frittata and it has greatly facilitated my writing about nettles.
What is it?
The botanic name for the stinging nettles genus is Urtica, coming from the Latin ‘‘ to burn’’ . These annual wild plants have deeply serrated leaves and hairs or trichomes on the leaves and stems that break off and shoot a little homegrown hypodermic under the skin. Packed with chemicals such as acetylcholine, histamine and serotonin, they cause temporary stinging and swelling. Those hairs disappear with washing and cooking, rendering the plant both harmless and delicious.
The nettle plant is called ortica. Nettles are called ortiche in Italian, and the stinging hairs do disappear very easily.
For making any nettle dish, wear rubber gloves and clean them by stripping the leaves from any tough stems, but I kept the soft tips.
Why do we love it?
Sydney edible wild plant expert and author Diego Bonetto, author of Eat Weeds, says stinging nettles have been eaten in Australia for tens of thousands of years. ‘‘We have three species of nettles in Australia – one with long, narrow leaves is a native. The other two are exotic.’’ They are a source of minerals such as magnesium and have a lot of linoleic acids, which help lower LDL cholesterol. ‘‘ Tea made from stinging nettle is known as a blood tonic in many cultures,’’ says Benotto. Victorian chef Glenn Laurie would tramp through native stinging nettles on fishing trips with his dad in Gippsland. ‘‘I didn’t learn how delicious they were until I started cooking with them at The River Cafe in London,’’ he says.
‘‘They were cooked into the risotto, where they added bright green, a fresh note and luscious texture to the rice.’’ At La Cantina at Freshwater Creek, near Anglesea, nettles have sprung up where the compost was.
I too have made risotto with nettles and if any of you have made a spinach risotto you will have the process for making it under control. Here is a simple recipe with nettles. The same recipe can also be used substituting English spinach. I think that 300g of rice is sufficient for 6 people but use more if you wish.
carnaroli rice or arborio, 300g
nettles, 1 bunch or anything from 250-400g nettles
extra virgin olive oil
white wine, 1 cup
vegetable or chicken stock, 1 litre, heated
onion or leek, 1
salt and pepper to taste
Parmigiano, good quality, grated to taste
Clean the nettles, wearing gloves; wash the leaves under cold water.
Make a nettle purée . Heat a little extra virgin olive oil in a pan, add the nettles and wilt them by covering with a lid. Add about a cup of stock and cook them till they are soft. It will not take long, depending on the quantities of the nettles, for about 5-10 minutes. Once they are cooked, blend the nettles and make a purée.
Make the risotto: Sauté the onion or leek with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, add the rice and toast it by mixing it for a few minutes. Add the white wine and evaporate it. Add some of the stock and continue cooking it by adding more stock until the rice is nearly cooked. Add the nettles and finish cooking. Risotto should never be dry. Italians say – all’onda (like waves).
Stir in the butter just before serving and present it with grated cheese. I also like to grate a little nutmeg on the risotto, especially when I am making it with spinach.
‘‘We make pasta with a puree of cooked leaves. You need to get as much of the moisture out [before mixing into the dough] because it will affect the ratio of flour and liquid,’’ Laurie says. He loves serving nettle puree enriched with extra virgin olive oil alongside seafood.
Once again, the process of making fresh, green pasta with nettles is the same as when using spinach.
Suggested ingredients and amounts: 300g durum wheat four, 2 eggs, 90g of pureed spinach.
Wilt the spinach, leaving some of the water retained by the leaves and cook till softened. Drain them, squeeze them as much as possible. This is when some muslin or a cotton cloth could come in handy to squeeze out the liquid. Blend them and cool before using. In a bowl, combine the flour and eggs, add the spinach puree and start working everything, use a fork at first to mix the ingredients. Continue by hand to knead well and depending on the size of the eggs and moisture in the spinach you may need to add a little flour water to have the right consistency. Rest it for about an hour, covered with a tea towel Roll it and cut it to shape.
How do you use it?
While Italian nonnas appear to handle nettles with impunity, it’s best to wear rubber gloves, handling the plants from the base of the stem, and wash them in a sink of cold water to remove grit. Blanch in boiling water for a minute then refresh in iced water.
A nonna is not likely to purchase a bunch of nettles, she or a family member would collect them from the wild. I have collected nettles on many occasions, armed with scissors, thick rubber gloves and large plastic bags.
After cleaning and washing the nettles, you can blanch them but I put them in a small bowl and I poured a kettle of boiling water on to them. That was enough to wilt them sufficiently to make my frittata. (looks like I made myself a cup of tea at the same time). Drain them. I do not see the need to refresh them under cold water.
The Brits have made nettle and veg soup for millennia but sometimes cook nettles in rich stock thickened with cream. The Spanish mix nettles with prawns and eggs to make a tortilla, while the Greeks make a pie, a bit like spanakopita, which they call hortikopita (wild weed pie). Nettles cooked with butter, shallots and cream make a smooth, unctuous puree as a bed for succulent seafood like scallops.
I like the idea of the puree as an accompaniment to many meat, fish and egg dishes and not just scallops.
Where do you get it?
Not in the supermarket. Some specialty greengrocers carry nettles but you’re more likely to find them at a farmers’ market. Or you could forage in the ’burbs or the country. Take a reference picture and look for disturbed soil or around trees where farm animals sleep.
On this occasion my partner saw them and bought them from Gus and Carmel from the Queen Victoria Market from their stall, now returned to its original location in the newly renovated shed close to Peel street.
The Fruttivendolo ( fruit seller/ green grocer) is by far the most attractive and well stocked stall in the market and this is where you will find vegetables and fruit of Italian origin in abundance.
Their produce is superb! They are only open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
Now back to making the FRITTATA with nettles.
Ingredients: I bunch of nettles, 6 eggs, 3-4 spring onions or a leek, some cheese – I used feta but ricotta or grated Parmesan is also good. Extra virgin olive oil and butter, salt and pepper.
Clean the nettles (see above) and wash in cold water. soften the nettles by pouring boiling water on to them or plunging them into a pan of hot water and boil for a few minutes.
Drain the nettles.
Saute some spring onions or a leek (softer tasting than onion) or a small onion in some butter and extra virgin olive oil.
Add the drained nettles to the sautéd onion and continue to sauté the ingredients for a few minutes. Remove the ingredients from the pan and let cool.
Lightly beat some eggs with a fork.
Add the sautéd ingredients, salt and pepper into the eggs and gently stir through. On this occasion I used some cubed , mild tasting feta, on other occasions I have used ricotta, formaggio fresco, or grated Parmesan cheese.
Re – oil the frying pan if necessary, heat it and gently pour in the mixture.
Press it around to try and cook as much of the mixture as possible.
Invert the frittata onto a plate to flip to the other side. Return it to the frypan and cook it.