Friday, 23 April 2010
Nettles don’t immediately spring to mind when thinking of this time of year and the bounty the season offers.
Tender milk fed lamb, wild garlic or the first crisp spears of asparagus, perhaps, but nettles? They’re certainly not at the top of many people’s spring essentials lists, or the bottom, come to think of it.
Long a fixture of many a hippy’s ingredient roster, nettles are gaining a following amongst some high profile chefs keen to follow in the footsteps of visionary cooks like Rene Redzepi who places provenance at the centre, and periphery, of his food philosophy.
With good reason. They are plentiful, free, brilliantly British, wildly versatile and, moreover, delicious.
Our garden is teeming with them. They burst through the earth in wild clusters at the first hint of warmth. Picking them requires some unbroken rubber gloves and a little patience but if the sun is out and the radio is providing happy company it is a pleasure rather than a chore.
Given their aptitude for wilting, it is a good idea to pick more than you think you need. Lots more. A pan full will magically disappear leaving just a vivid green layer and the memory of its volume.
Sunday was a lazy day and we picked lots. Feeling adventurous we made a nettle tea, which tasted like it was doing us good even after it had been pepped up with honey and lime juice, a nettle soup and even some zingy nettle pesto which was great on crackers with a little cheese.
But the best recipe was for nettle risotto – a clean yet hearty bowlful of springtime.
Since cooking at Le Calandre under the tutelage of Massimiliano Alajmo (the youngest ever recipient of the culinary world’s highest accolade: three stars in the Michelin guide) I’ve changed the way I make risotto.
Whilst there not only did I taste the best dish I have ever eaten in my entire life (a risotto flavoured with rose petal and peach – hands down the most incredible taste experience ever. Ever) I also cooked one of the restaurant’s signature dishes – saffron and liquorice risotto – which shows the levels to which rice and stock can be elevated. In the hands of a 3* chef, the humble risotto isn’t quite so humble.
Whilst this effort doesn’t quite have such high aspirations, the method remains the same and a departure from the rather labour intensive approach I used to take.
Dry toasting the rice over a high heat cuts down the cooking time from a frustrating 35-40 minutes to a shade under 15 and makes for a creamier texture as the starches are quickly released allowing the grains to retain some integrity and bite. A top tip indeed
Nettle and Yarg Risotto
A note about Yarg – Yarg is a semi-hard cheese from Cornwall. It is fresh and satisfyingly creamy. It is also wrapped in nettle leaves making it a perfect partner for this risotto instead of the more usual Parmesan
Half a small white onion, finely chopped
A clove of garlic, finely minced
A large quantity of nettle tops, washed, picked over then dropped into boiling water for a minute or so. Once cooked, shock them in iced water so that the bright green colour remains, strain well then chop and fry in a little butter.
A handful of rice, per person
Chicken stock, warmed
25-50g Yarg cheese, finely diced.
Soften the onion and garlic with the butter over a gentle heat until the turn translucent. Remove from the pan and reserve. Dry the pan and crank up the heat. Toast the rice for 2-3 minutes taking care not to burn it. Add the onion and garlic back to the rice then pour in the wine. It will bubble like mad.
Ladle in some of the stock so that the rice is covered, stir then let it bubble away. As soon as it looks as if it is too dry, add some more. It should bubble away like an active swamp.
A good risotto should be semi-liquid. Keep tasting it and checking the texture of the rice. When it is barely cooked add another ladle full of stock and remove from the heat. It will look too wet but don’t worry – risotto has a tendency to seize up as it cools. Stir in a healthy dose of butter and the cheese then spoon into warm bowls.
This one was finished with some blanched nettles leaves, a little more cheese and some spiced salt. Fresh yet slightly warming all at once.
Photos (the good ones anyway) by @photolotte