Monday, June 07, 2010
photo courtesy Jay Town
My first introduction to nettles was about 30 years ago in the small mining town of Woods Point, in the high country of Victoria.
Frank Bussat ran a small restaurant called Diggers Delight in his rambling old house. Local treats often appeared on his menu, wild venison, trout from the pristine waters of the upper Goulburn river, even horse meat made its way onto the carte.
Frank was rather sly with some of his ingredients which would often appear without any description and would disingenuously ask what the diner thought - after the fact.
This was how I was first introduced to stinging nettles, in the form of a rather delicious soup.
Folklore holds that nettles are extremely good for you and it is thought that they have diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties. But it is the stinging spines that cover the leaves and stems for which nettles are renowned. One light touch is enough to get you stung.
Fortunately though, once cooked, the spines are completely deactivated and the only place you might get stung eating them is in Dorset, England where they hold a festival each year, the object of which is to eat as many raw nettles as possible. Ouch!
Nettles grow wild at this time of year right across Victoria, favouring damp shady places. You've probably got some growing in your garden right now.
Having made many nettle soups and risottos, last year, my attention was turned to making that wonderful Greek staple, spanakopita, substituting nettles for the more usual spinach. When the major newspaper, the Herald Sun, got wind of it, they turned my prickly pie into a feature on their food pages.
For those who didn't get to see the recipe, here it is below.
2 or 3 bunches of nettles*
4 spring onions
150g unsalted butter
4 tablespoons chopped dill
250g fetta cheese
250g ricotta cheese
juice of 1/2 a lemon
salt and fresh ground pepper
375g filo pastry - about 20 sheets
Using rubber gloves, pick the nettle leaves from the stalks, rinse well in clean water to remove any dirt, then drain in a colander.
Finely chop the spring onions, both white and green parts, and gently sweat in a pot with 25g butter. When softened, add the drained nettle leaves and the dill then stir until just wilted and greatly reduced in volume. Tip into a colander to drain and cool. At this point, nettles can no longer sting you.
Whisk the 4 eggs in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, break up the fetta and ricotta cheeses into small pieces the size of gravel, add the beaten eggs, the cooled nettle mixture and the lemon juice, Season carefully with salt, generously with fresh ground pepper.
Working quickly to prevent the filo pastry from drying out, melt the remaining butter, trim the pastry to suit a large baking dish and place in 10 sheets, brushing the top each one with melted butter. Spoon in the nettle and cheese mixture and spread evenly. Top with the remaining 10 sheets of pastry, again brushing the top each one with butter.
Score the top layer of pastry into a serving size diamond pattern or squares, then bake in a 180c oven for 35 minutes or until well browned. Serve warm or cold.
*Available wild or from farmer's markets during winter.