Down on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, I’ve been busy of late sowing and planting in preparation for the new season’s vegetable crops. Although my focus is primarily on the future, I still have produce from the old season which has survived the mild winter and continues to provide us with fresh organic vegetables. Leeks, kale, spinach, chard and purple sprouting broccoli have done particularly well and are still going strong. But soon these, too, will be gone, and then there will be a short gap before the first of the new season’s crops start to emerge.
This transitional period used to be called the “hungry gap” – traditionally a time of year when households would have relied upon stored foods like beans and cereals, as well as upon foraged foods.
One of the most easily sourced free foods available at this time of year is the stinging nettle. Generally regarded and treated as a weed, it is in fact a plant that is rich in nutrients (vitamins A and C as well as magnesium, iron and calcium). In addition the nettle is an important food source for pollinating insects, especially bees and butterflies, which feed on the flowers of the plant.
Nettles are at their best right now, while they are still tender and succulent. They like to grow in healthy, nitrogen-rich soil, so I choose to take it as a complement that there is always a small clump of them growing on one of the edges of my allotment.
When foraging for nettles, use gloves and avoid plants which are growing by roadsides. Always wash the leaves well before cooking them.
The thought of cooking and eating nettles may sound slightly disturbing, but rest assured: the heat of the oil immediately neutralises the nettle’s sting, and with this recipe you end up with a beautifully light, crisp, and utterly delicious treat.
nettle top fritters with chilli dipping sauce
100 g nettle tops
for the batter
75 g organic cornflour
100 ml ale, lager or sparkling water
pinch sea salt
for the chilli dipping sauce
2 red chillies, seeds in, roughly chopped (remove some or all of the seeds for a milder version)
2 cloves garlic, rouhly chopped
100 ml mirin (rice vinegar)
50 ml water
20 ml organic maple syrup
1/2 tsp sea salt
juice of 1 lime
groundnut oil for deep frying
1. Wearing gloves, wash the nettle tops, shake off excess water and leave to drain on kitchen paper.
2. For the dipping sauce, place the chillies, garlic, water, maple syrup and sea salt in a food processor or blender and process to a fairly smooth paste. Pour the mixture into a saucepan and place over a high heat. Boil vigorously for a minute then reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer for 5 minutes to reduce the sauce. Keep stirring every so often. Remove from the heat, stir in the lime juice and set aside to cool.
3. For the batter, simply place the cornflour, sea salt and beer in a bowl and whisk together into a smooth batter.
4. Pour the oil into a suitable pan to a depth of 4-5cm. Place over a high heat. It is important to get the oil to the right temperature before starting cooking so that the batter comes out crisp. The oil is ready when it is hot enough to turn a cube of bread brown within 30 seconds.
5. Using gloves, dip the nettle tops in the batter and ensure they are evenly coated. Carefully drop the battered nettle tops into the hot oil. Fry for a minute, or until golden in colour. Drain briefly on kitchen paper. Serve with the dipping sauce.