In this ever increasing world of global warming, with seasons becoming a little less predictable and generally warmer, odd things are happening amongst the hedgerows of Britain. I was out walking at the weekend and there, sprouting out in a menacing manner, was my favourite wild herb - the nettle. This wasn't an old tough bitter specimen left over from 2007. It was a young and tender set of new shoots awaiting a bare hand to sting. And it was 2 months early.
Fortunately I had my gloves on, so like David Bellamy, I got amongst the undergrowth and pinched a few handfuls. Walkers avoided eye contact with me as I looked clearly insane delving into the foliage with an excited smile on my face, and who could blame them? I love nettles. For me, they combine all that is good about our wild edible food along with a sense of danger. Well, as dangerous as wild food is ever going to get in Britain.
One sting from a wild nettle and you know all about it. As a 7 year old, I ran naked into a whole pile of stinging nettles one hot 1970s caravan holiday in the Lakes. Dock leaves and Calamine Lotion were no relief and I spent two weeks feeling sorry for myself indoors instead. Quite why anybody would want to put one into their mouths may appear strange, and if I was seven years old I would have ran a mile. 31 years on, I can't get enough.
A quick wash and pick and a few minutes in a pan, just like wilting spinach, is all that is required to null any sting. Squeeze out excess water then use in a multitude of recipes for a delicious and original flavour along with plenty of vitamins and iron. And it is free. I used my few handfuls in a simple curry, accompanied by some potatoes and mushrooms for a nice little twist on a vegetarian curry with a real sting.
Nettle, Potato and Mushroom Curry
2 onions, sliced
2 tbsp vegetable or sunflower oil
3 large floury potatoes such as Maris Piper, peeled and cubed
100g button or chestnut mushrooms, halved
1 thumb size of ginger, peeled and chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 large red chilli or 1 tsp of dried chillies
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
Half tsp cayenne pepper
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
300ml vegetable stock
4 handfuls of nettles, washed, picked, blanched, squeezed and roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
1 - Heat up the oil in a large pan and add the onions. Cook, stirring, until golden.
2 - Crush the ginger, garlic and chilli with a pestle and mortar until you have a paste, or blitz in a food processor or finely chop.
3 - Add the paste and spices to the onions and cook stirring for 1 minute until fragrant.
3 - Add the potatoes and mushrooms and cook for 2 minutes, stirring.
4 - Add the tomatoes and stock, bring to the boil then simmer for 30 minutes or until the potatoes are soft and the sauce has thickened slightly.
5 - Stir in the nettles then taste for seasoning. Serve with basmati rice and/or breads and chutneys.