Whilst on one of our many trips to the play park this summer, I realised that I have not been foraging nearly enough since having kids. There is really no excuse (you know, apart from exhaustion, loosing my ‘self’, lack of time energy etc…) as there are edible leaves all over the place. We are very fortunate in the UK to have two nutritious, delicious and abundantly common wild foods around every corner – dandelion leaves and nettle tips!
I also realised that play parks are a great place to collect dandelion leaves and nettle tips as as far as I know they are not sprayed with nasty chemicals and they are routinely cut back and cleared, which provides a long season of lovely fresh young nettles. So pick away while the kids play! All you need to do is remember to take some gloves and a bag.
Wild stinging nettles are one person’s tiresome and painfully irritating weed and another person’s wonderfully tasty and free food and powerful medicine. Stinging nettles are rich in vitamins A and C, iron, potassium and calcium. They are also surprisingly high in protein (up to 25%). They taste similar to spinach and have many uses in the kitchen.
A common rule when picking wild nettles is to only pick them in spring while they are young. It IS important that you only pick young plants because not only are older nettles tough, bitter and fibrous, but they also contain gritty particles called ‘cystoliths’ which can irritate the urinary tract. This rule can be broken though as it is not only possible to find young plants in spring. Plants that have been cut back and have regrown anytime during the year are fine to eat. In fact, if you are lucky enough to have your own patch of wild stinging nettles in your garden, (a sentence a few years ago I never thought I would say) you can systematically cut down, let regrow and harvest for as long as you like until winter sets in properly and the plants die back.
A few rules that you MUST follow.
1. Only pick the tips, i.e. the top 4-6 leaves
2. Wear gloves when harvesting! Washing up gloves do the trick rather stylishly…
3. Never eat nettles from plants that are flowering or have gone to seed
4. Avoid nettles along roads as they may well be polluted
5. Always pick the leaves off the central stalk when cooking, don’t eat the stalk as it is too fibrous
I made a soup with our little collection. There are countless variations, just use whatever you have at home as a base. I have used red lentils and carrots, courgettes and potatoes…the possibilities are endless. I had celery, fennel and potato in the fridge yesterday and this is what I did:
In a large pot, sauté roughly chopped celery, fennel bulb and potatoes in a little oil or butter. When the vegetables start to soften add garlic to taste and top up with stock or water and season well. Simmer until the potatoes are soft then add the greens. Cook for a minute or two then blend well with a stick blender. Taste and season with salt, pepper and lemon juice.