Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Nettles (Τσουκνίδες)

Yesterday I did something that I wouldn't recommend anyone do without thinking of the risks involved first: I added an unidentified plant from the garden to my cooking.

(a patch of nettles, among other weeds, growing around the celery)

Spurred on by the economic crisis and the fact that only about a fraction of the plant species in the world have been used as food, I decided that there can't be any harm in trying a new one, or at least one which is not commonly used in our cooking, but is prevalent in all the fields and gardens of the province, and is also known to be an edible plant species: nettles.


Nettles are those nasty stinging plants which cause an itchy sensation wherever they touch human skin. Most people would probably not know that they are edible, although I remember once my father bringing them home in our apartment in Hania, telling me that they are good for lowering blood pressure which he suffered from. (Pity he didn't just stick to eating this instead of getting involved with other blood-pressure lowering activities.) His sister had boiled them, so they resembled green mush. They looked very off-putting, but are apparently very nutritious: "Stinging nettle has a flavor similar to spinach when cooked, and is rich in vitamins A, C, D, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium."

(one stings, the other doesn't; they look similar, despite the age difference - the stinging plant looks younger than the non-stinging one)

I knew that they would feel prickly, so I came prepared with some protective gloves to harvest them from the garden. But I was surprised when I couldn't see many thistles on them as I was picking them. I realised that there were two weeds growing side by side that looked exactly the same: one had stinging hairs on the stems and leaves,while the other was completely bald, but the shape of leaves and the general form of the weed seemed no different to each other. I decided to check out all the information available on nettles over the internet.

Wikipedia, usually our first choice for encyclopaedia-style information, tells us that most nettle species "share the property of having stinging hairs, and can be expected to have very similar medicinal uses to the stinging nettle." Possibly, the hairless species I found was also a nettle but not a stinging one. But the question is, are they edible too?

I finally found a reference for this non-stinging variety, but not before I added them to my latest kalitsounia and "spinach" pie making stint. I chopped the nettles in the same way that I would chop spinach and add it to a pie filling. I also tried the pie filling before cooking it, as well as after it came out of the oven. There was no discernible flavour that made the kalitsounia or pie taste different from what my family would normally eat as I cook it. The nettles - with and without sting - did not have any particular flavour in the first place, which makes me wonder whether makers of mass-produced spanakopita, my favorite takeaway, use nettles in their pie-fillings: they are much cheaper than spinach, although they may be harder to work with. But do not despair: blanching nettles removes their sting.

My non-stinging species was probably the wood nettle. Here's what WildManSteveBrill says about them:

stinging nettle; wood nettle
(the wood nettle, top, and the stinging nettle, bottom, against a backdrop of autumn garden )

"Other true nettle species are also edible. You'd think the stinging hairs would make nettle identification easy. Nevertheless, I once ran into some people in the woods who insisted that clearweed (Pilea pumila), a similar-looking, nonpoisonous plant with a translucent stem and no stinging hairs, was stinging nettles. They had been eating this unpalatably inedible nontoxic plant, which I had always rejected as unpalatable, all summer."


The kalitsounia were a complete success with the whole family - the contents of the tin disappeared as soon as I brought it out of the oven (hence no photos!), with no adverse side-effects. I had some remaining mixture which I made into a small pie for the deep freeze, using Laurie's ladenia pizza dough as a base. The family was informed about the nettles after they had eaten. The question is whether I would use nettles again in a meal, to compensate for a lack of organic leafy greens, and the answer is, yes, I would. Nettles don't seem to taste too different from any other grassy leaves; some people claim that they taste like spinach when cooked. When they are mixed into other ingredients such as soft cheese and other herbs (for a hortopita pie filling), they will go by completely unnoticed. However, I don't think I would use them on their own; they are simply too unpalatable-looking...

This is my entry for Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Laurie from Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska, who's tasted far less conventional greenery than the mere nettle: you should see what she did with spruce and pine tips.

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