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 souffle, 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 outre 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 puree 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 sauteed 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 purees, risottos and soups -- dishes that showcase the vivid color as well as the nettles’ delicate, bright, almost nutty flavor.
Trial by fire
Cooking 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 saute 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 sauteed is all it takes.
Once cooked and their sting tamed, nettles can be used with abandon. Stir them into risotto, fold them into a souffle, layer them inside a spring quiche, make pesto -- or chop them into a tapenade, like chef David LeFevre does at Water Grill.
LeFevre first sautes 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 puree 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 creme fraiche 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.