Inspiration can come from all manner of places. Randomly, it was seeing that my favourite London restaurant Oldroyd had made it into Time Out’s 100 best restaurants list (even if it is only number 45, which is not high enough in my book) that inspired me to take advantage of ingredients right on my door step.
Oldroyd is my favourite restaurant for a number of reasons. Not only is the food wonderful, and the tiny upstairs dining room the perfect place to while a way an evening with friends, but the team includes two of my favourite east London boys, Ciaran Jones and Louis Lingwood.
We met when they ran the Pill Box Kitchen, located in Pill Box Studios in Bethnal Green, which for a short while was home to my office. The food they dished up was fabulous – indeed, it has to take a large proportion of blame for my considerable gains in weight over that period (damn you boys!). Every day they would conjure up the most delicious array of dishes: brandade (fishy garlicky mashed potato on toast), piping hot croquettes, and a super tasty nettle pasta.
I’d never considered eating nettles before – back in east London the only nettles to be found would be by the subway, covered in cocktail of traffic fumes and urine. But as I stared out of my kitchen window the other night wondering what to cook, my eye landed on the huge nettle patch out the back of the house. Hey presto – dinner!
When I talk of eating nettles, I don’t mean the kind of eating that happens in Dorset each year, where competitors attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible – stinging leaves and all! (As an aside, this now-global championship dates back to 1986 when two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about which had the worst infestation of nettles!)
To make them edible without injury, nettles need to be soaked in water. They can then be used like spinach – and is just as good for you; the plant it rich in Vitamins A and C, iron, protein, potassium, manganese and calcium. But make sure you don’t eat nettles after they’ve flowered. The leaves develop gritty particles called cystoliths, which can irritate the urinary tract. Aim for the fresh, young plants and only pick the tips.
Nettles can be used to make a wide variety of dishes: nettle soup is particularly popular apparently, and rumour has it nettle and ricotta lasagne is worth a try. We opted for nettle risotto and pretty tasty it was too.
A big bunch of nettles (they will shrink considerably on cooking)
About 900ml vegetable stock
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
175g risotto rice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
50g feta cheese
- Arm yourself with a pair of rubber gloves and a bowl, and go pick yourself some nettles
- Remove stalks and rinse leaves carefully to remove cobwebs, spiders and other unwanted objects
- Place nettles leaves in a pan, cover with boiling water and blanche for 2 minutes before draining
- Make the stock
- In a large pan, heat the oil and fry the onions until soft and translucent
- Add the rice, stir to coat the grains and then add a ladle of stock
- Keep stirring until the stock has been absorbed and the gradually add the rest of the stock, a little at a time, until the rice is al dente (try not to overcook it like I did mine!)
- Stir in the nettles and feta cheese, season and serve.