Even though my vegetable patch is looking pretty sparse at the moment, outside of the garden the first opportunities of foraging are beginning, starting with nettles. Stinging or common nettles (ortica dioica) are a great wild gift of early spring and right now is the time to gather them, when the first tender leaves are starting to sprout.
Few things can be as menacing yet desirable as the stinging nettle. Their flavour is delicious, a bit like an intense, rich spinach and they’re full of health giving vitamins and iron. You need to pick just the tops off each plant, where the leaves are at their most tender and once cooked for 2-3 minutes in boiling water, they’re free from the sting. If you don’t cook them long enough, you can still get a harmless little tickle on the tongue.
It might seem strange to love a weed that stings but people have been using them forever. Nettles are full of medicinal properties; animals are fed a dried nettle supplement to help make their coats glossy and in Cornwall the leaves are wrapped around Yarg cheese to encourage its ripening. We eat nettle soup in Europe and in Northern India they cook nettles with spices, where they are known as Shishnu. In the vegetable garden they can indicate high soil fertility and when cut, they can be used as a compost activator.
The ones I picked this weekend I made into ravioli parcels, but for my next picking I thought a risotto or a souflee would be good to try. If you can’t face the nettle bed you can buy them online from www.natoora.co.uk
Pick from areas that you are certain haven’t been sprayed with pesticides or where dogs may have peed. Wear protective gloves to avoid the sting and pick the top 4 bracts of the plant (approx.. the top 20cm). This will ensure you don’t get any tough stalks.
For the pasta:
Makes about 500g
350g 00” pasta flour (Italian fine milled)
A good pinch of salt
1 egg and 2-3 egg yolks (depending on the size)
Fine semolina flour for kneading
Sieve the flour into a big bowl, add the salt then make a well in the middle. Add the whole egg and yolks and mix together until it forms a dough. You can also do this in a Kitchen Aid using the hook attachment, or a Magimix. The dough needs to be soft, but not sticky and wet. If it’s too wet, add a little more flour and if it’s dry, add another egg yolk or water.
Sprinkle some semolina flour on a work surface and knead the dough until it’s smooth and stretchy.
Divide into two balls and wrap in cling film. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
For the ravioli filling:
A carrier bag full of nettles (keep some aside to serve)
200g ricotta cheese
50g parmesan, grated
Nutmeg, to grate
Salt and pepper
Wash the nettles and remove any woody stalks.
In a pan of boiling, salted water, cook the nettles for a couple of minutes until they soften and wilt. Drain and squeeze out as much of the water as you can. Take out a small handful and set aside. These are to put on top when serving. Roughly chop the others
In a bowl, mix the ricotta with a fork then add the chopped nettles, parmesan and a grate or two of nutmeg and season well with salt and pepper.
To make the ravioli:
Flour the work surface with the semolina and using a pasta machine, start rolling one ball of the dough through the machine. Start on the highest setting and work down gradually so you end up with smooth, thin dough which reaches each side of the machine.
Spoon little balls of the filling onto the dough, then, with a little water, wet the dough where it will join. Fold it over to cover and carefully squeeze out any air trapped in the parcels before sealing. Cut each parcel into a little rectangle to make your individual raviolis.
Repeat this until you have used all your filling. If you have any dough left over, you can keep it in the fridge for a few days to use for something else.
In a saucepan, melt the butter and add the nettle leaves you kept aside. Allow the butter to start foaming before you take it off the heat.
Cook the ravioli in a pan with plenty of boiling, salted water for about 3 minutes. Drain and put on a plate with the melted butter and nettle leaves poured over with a grate of parmesan.