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An herb with outré glamour

THE maxim "no pain, no gain" doesn't resound in the kitchen the way that it does in the gym. Except maybe when it comes to stinging nettles, a common weed that looks like mint, cooks up like spinach, has a distinctively bright herbal flavor — and happens to be many chefs' darling.

Brush up against them and it feels as if you've been stung by a swarm of miniature bees. But cook them in a soufflé, a frittata or some creamy polenta and they reveal their vibrant, earthy taste and a surprising, verdant color. Right now is when they're showing up at farmers markets, and they should be around till early summer.

There's a kind of outré glamour to voluntarily using an ingredient that hurts, as if it takes guts as well as ingenuity to put it on the menu.

Campanile's Mark Peel has both. "I fell into a bed of them once, wearing only cut-offs and sneakers," says the chef, who has had nettles on his menu for years. "I thought I was going to die." He told this story at the Santa Monica Farmers Market recently when he was buying, among other things, nettles. "I find them very refreshing, almost like chervil." Very refreshing — if you're not lying in a field of them.

Other chefs like the zing it gives their dishes. Joe Miller of Joe's Restaurant in Venice likes nettles in soup, such as his sophisticated purée of potatoes, onions and watercress, and Chris Kidder recently offered nettle gnocchi at Literati II in West L.A. Govind Armstrong, whose Table 8 recently re-opened in Hollywood, offers a dish of torn pasta and sweetbreads in a sauce studded with mirepoix and punctuated by sautéed nettles. Suzanne Goin has nettles on the menus of both her restaurants right now: wilted into a white bean soup at Lucques, and over at A.O.C. they highlight a dish of Manila clams with vermouth and green garlic. And at Pizzeria Mozza, Nancy Silverton makes a mean nettle pizza — topped with chopped nettles and Cacio di Roma, a sheepsmilk cheese, all crisped up in the wood-burning oven.

Nettles turn a deep emerald when cooked, which makes them a brilliant ingredient for sauces and purées, risottos and soups — dishes that showcase the vivid color as well as the nettles' delicate, bright, almost nutty flavor.

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Trial by fireCOOKING also gets rid of the plant's sting. Use only the leaves, and wear gloves to remove them from the stalks. Rinse them carefully, then blanch the nettles — it doesn't take long, and you don't want to overcook them. Drain the nettles and press out the excess water.

Or sauté them briefly in a little butter or olive oil: The heat destroys the formic acid that gives them their sting. Food science authority Harold McGee says nettles' "weapon system involves microscopic projections from vulnerable cells on the outside of the leaves and stems….Any temperature that disrupts cell structures should take care of it." Ten seconds in boiling water or a few minutes sautéed is all it takes.

Once cooked and their sting tamed, nettles can be used with abandon. Stir them into risotto, fold them into a soufflé, layer them inside a spring quiche, make pesto — or chop them into a tapenade, like chef David LeFevre does at Water Grill.

LeFevre first sautés the nettles with onions and garlic, then braises them with a little chicken stock. Minced with kalamata olives and sun-dried tomatoes, he spreads the tapenade liberally on crostini and tops it with luscious white anchovy fillets. LeFevre loves nettles for their "earthy note and a grassy herbal flavor."

Add blanched nettles to a pot of simmering potatoes and leeks, give it a quick purée and you'll have a soothing, flavorful soup. Or torque up homemade pasta dough with blanched and finely minced nettles — you make the dough the same way you would spinach pasta — as Peel does with his ravioli, a seasonal favorite at Campanile.

For a quick side with rack of lamb or braised short ribs, try nettle polenta. Make a soft polenta with cornmeal, water and some kosher salt, and when it's done, stir in grated Parmesan for depth, a little crème fraîche for a tangy note, then blanched and finely chopped nettles. A little more stirring and the cheese and cream melt in and the nettles break into an emerald confetti.

Or spoon blanched and chopped nettles into a frittata laden with ricotta and green garlic, another gem of early spring. A few minutes on the stove top and a few more under the broiler and you have a perfectly seasonal rustic dinner. Amazing what you can do with a field of nettles — as long as you don't lie down in them.

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amyscattergood@latimes.com*

Nettle polenta

Total time: About 30 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Stinging nettles are available at many local farmers markets. When handling the nettles, wear latex or exam gloves; rinse them in a sink full of cold water to remove any dirt. Carefully remove the leaves from the stalks.

4 cups washed nettle leaves

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup polenta, or organic coarse-ground corn meal

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/4 cup crème fraîche

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and, using a pair of tongs or rubber gloves, add the nettles to the pot. Blanch the nettles for about 1 minute. Drain, coarsely chop and reserve.

2. In a heavy-bottomed medium pot, bring 5 1/2 cups of water to a boil. Add the salt and olive oil, then slowly pour in the polenta, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.

3. Reduce the heat to medium-low so the polenta cooks at a low simmer (bubbling slightly). Stir frequently until thick and creamy, about 17 to 20 minutes.

4. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano, crème fraîche and nettles, whisking until combined. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately.


Each serving: 233 calories; 14 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 18 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 304 mg. cholesterol; 430 mg. sodium.**

Nettle frittata with green garlic and ricotta

Total time: About 30 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from "Local Flavors" by Deborah Madison. Stinging nettles are available at many local farmers markets. When handling the nettles, wear latex or exam gloves; rinse them in a sink full of cold water to remove any dirt. Carefully remove the leaves from the stalks.

3 cups washed nettle leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 head green garlic, minced (can substitute 2 garlic cloves)

1 cup finely chopped onion

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

8 large eggs

1/3 cup pecorino Romano, grated

1/2 cup ricotta

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1. Heat the broiler. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the nettles and, using tongs or rubber gloves, put them into the water and blanch them, for about 1 minute. Drain and when cool enough to handle, press out the water, chop into a rough cut and reserve.

2. Warm the olive oil in a 10-inch skillet. Add the garlic and onion and cook over low heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the nettles and season with salt and pepper.

3. Beat the eggs with one-half teaspoon salt, then stir the nettle and onion mixture into the bowl and add the Pecorino. Add the ricotta, leaving it a little streaky.

4. Wipe out the skillet and return it to the heat with the butter. When the butter has foamed then subsided, pour in the egg mixture. Stir until the ingredients are emulsified. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook until the eggs have set up around the edges and are golden on the bottom, about 6 to 7 minutes. The center will be slightly jiggly.

5. Slide the pan under the broiler and cook until the top is set and golden, about 1 minute. Check to see that the eggs are cooked (the frittata should be set in the center); cool slightly or to room temperature before serving.


Each serving: 233 calories; 14 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 18 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 304 mg. cholesterol; 430 mg. sodium.**

Nettle tapenade crostini with anchovies

Total time: About 30 minutes

Servings: Makes 10 crostini

Note: From Water Grill executive chef David LeFevre. Stinging nettles are available at many local farmers markets. When handling the nettles, wear latex or exam gloves; rinse them in a sink full of cold water to remove any dirt. Carefully remove the leaves from the stalks. Marinated anchovies are available at Surfas in Culver City and Nicole's in South Pasadena.

Crostini2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

10 slices crusty French bread, sliced on the bias

1. In a small pan over low heat, cook the garlic in the olive oil until soft but not browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and brush the slices of bread with the mixture.

2. Grill the bread (you can use a stove-top grill) over medium heat until golden brown and crunchy. Reserve.

Tapenade and assembly3 tablespoons minced

onion

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 cups stinging nettle leaves, washed

3/8 cup chicken stock

1/3 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

1/2 cup chopped sundried tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1/4 cup chopped fresh

oregano

20 marinated white anchovy fillets

1. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil until they begin to sweat, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the nettles and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes.

2. Add the chicken stock and braise until the greens are soft and the liquid is evaporated. Remove from the heat and cool.

3. On a cutting board, mince the nettle mixture and put it into a mixing bowl. Add the olives, sundried tomatoes and herbs.

4. Place about 2 tablespoons tapenade onto each crostino, then top with two anchovy fillets. Serve immediately.


Each crostino: 117 calories; 5 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 7 mg. cholesterol; 502 mg. sodium.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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