Wonder weeds

No, not that kind of weed! Naughty reader… I’m talking about those pesky plants that are normally eradicated from our pristine gardens before they’ve had chance to see the light of day. Some actually have incredible nutritional and healing properties, so think twice before pulling them out!

We love our greens here at Healthy Weekender, and weed greens are free and fabulous. We’ll do another post on greens soon, but for now, here are two of our favourite wonder weeds.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)

Did you know that the French actually cultivate dandelions? They grow them in the same way that we grow lettuces and cabbages. The name dandelion comes from the French dent de lion, which means lion’s tooth, referring to the shape of the leaves. They know a thing or two about food, do the French. So I’m going to take a leaf out of their book (sorry), and start munching on dandelions. The leaves, roots and flowers are all edible, and can be used in salads, soups and stews, or wilted gently in a pan. You can also use them to make wine, tea, and even coffee (from the roots). Healthwise, dandelions are full of vitamin A, vitamin C, and beta carotene, and have a whole raft of medicinal qualities (the word official from the Latin name basically means it was used to treat illnesses)including detoxification of the liver, cleansing of the kidney and urinary tract, aiding digestion, reducing inflammation and even helping to combat cancer. Go dandelions! Just remember to pick the leaves in the spring, before they turn bitter, and, as with any foraging activity, steer clear of roadsides or anywhere else that may have been sprayed with chemicals or pumped full of exhaust fumes. Kind of defeats the object when you’re trying to stay clean.

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Nettles are another wonder weed, and oh I love do them. The thing I love most about them is that they actually adapt to your body’s needs, so they’re like an intelligent superfood with super powers. Ninja nettles. Packed full of iron, vitamin C, vitamin K, chlorophyll and flavonoids, nettles are anti-inflammatory, as well as being an antihistamine, making them perfect for spring and summer colds and hay fever. Nutritionally, they beat spinach and broccoli hands down, plus they taste good. Best of all, they’re free and abundant! What’s not to love? The way to tackle nettles is to pick the early leaves in spring (March/April) and wear rubber gloves when doing so, because as we all know, nettles hurt. Pluck only the top few leaves (à la the PG Tips advert), and make a tea or tonic with them by steeping in hot water. Nettle soup is also yummy. But personally, I like to sauté them with a little garlic and olive oil and serve them with gnocchi.

A couple of good books that contain recipes made with foraged herbs and weeds include The Herb Farm Cookbook by Jerry Traunfeld and Wild Garlic Gooseberries and Me by the brilliant Denis Cotter. Here I’ve used a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe, taken from his River Cottage Veg cookbook. Hugh loves nettles, too, so he’s clearly a good guy. I learned how to make proper ricotta from scratch the other day, from a real life Italian person, so I’ll share that recipe with you soon. It will make this gnocchi rock even more!

Ricotta and nettle gnocchi

A variation on gnocchi verde, which is traditionally made with spinach. You can, of course, use spinach instead of nettles, when the bloody stuff finally comes up.

Serves six.

½-1 carrier bag full of young nettle tops (around 250-300g when cooked and squeezed dry)
50g butter, melted, plus a little extra for serving
200g ricotta cheese
100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
3 egg yolks
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
150g Parmesan, grated, plus a little extra, for serving
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Wash the nettles well, transfer to a big pan, along with the water that’s still clinging to them, then wilt over a medium heat for about five minutes, until tender. Leave to cool a little, then squeeze as dry as you can. Weigh out 250-300g of squeezed nettles, chop finely, then put in a bowl. Add the melted butter and mix together. In a large bowl, lightly beat the ricotta with a fork, then sift in the flour. Add the egg yolks, nutmeg, Parmesan and the cooled, buttered nettles and mix well (do not over-mix: it’s nice to have a textured mixture, rather than a homogenised paste). Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper only if required, then chill for at least an hour, until stiff.

2. Lightly dust a baking tray with plain flour. Using two dessertspoons, mould the mixture into gnocchi – that is, take a small amount in one spoon and then scrape it off with the other spoon. Repeat this a few times, passing the mixture between the two spoons. Once you have the knack, you will be able to make little rugby ball shapes. The gnocchi should be all the same size, about 2cm in diameter. Place on the floured baking tray. (At this stage, they can be covered in clingfilm and left in the fridge for up to 24 hours if necessary.)

3. Bring a large pan of water to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Gently place the gnocchi in the water in batches of six or seven – it is important not to overcrowd the pan – and cook gently for five to six minutes. By this time they should all have floated back up to the surface. Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and place on kitchen paper to drain off excess water. Toss in melted butter and serve immediately, with extra Parmesan.

Thanks Hugh!

Disclaimer: Always make sure you identify your plants properly. I don’t want any sick readers, please!

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