Nettle spanakopita

Things are beginning to look a bit more hopeful at the allotment: the different kinds of mustard greens and radishes are growing nicely (but still just about 1 cm high), the cold frame is greening up again and just yesterday we spotted the first asparagus poking their heads from the dirt. But the first new harvest from the allotment this spring were … nettles.

No, I don’t actually grow nettles (though I do know a seed company that sells nettle seed, believe it or not), I just kind of let them grow. And grow they do. Like no vegetable I’ve carefully sown, watered, weeded and fed. In a way they also surpass all vegetables in terms of usefulness: highly nutritious, powerfully medicinal and you can even turn them into fiber. Nettles are rich in vitamins, iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium…

Medicinally, they can be used from everything from alleviating the symptoms of PMS to combating hair loss. Nettle is a powerful tonic and therefore an excellent herb to use in quantity after the long winter. Nettles are most palatable in spring, so I pick them all the time in April and May and then pull all plants out. I know they will be back next spring, creeping into the garden from behind the fence.

When picking nettles, only take the tops. It’s also a good idea to put on gloves – this year was the first time I remembered to bring gloves and it made the picking a lot less painful. However, if you forget gloves, just remember that the stinging stimulates the blood flow and is great against rheumatism.

Anyway, the stinging disappears in cooking, so eating cooked nettles is just like eating any other greens. This spanakopita uses nettles instead of spinach, but you could use a mixture of both. Sometimes I make it without the rice, or use different kinds of cheese. It has become one of our traditional Easter dishes.

Nettle spanakopita
Adapted from Rosalind Creasy: Family Herbal
2 cups of water
1 cup (brown) long-grain rice
3 quarts (1,5 l) fresh nettle tops
1 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tbsp fresh chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano…)
1 cup ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
¼ cup butter
1 package of phyllo dough at room temperature
7 ounces of feta cheese, crumbled

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius). Bring water to boil, add rice, cover and simmer over low heat until tender (about 45 minutes for brown rice). Drain if necessary. While the rice is cooking, steam the nettle tops for about 15 minutes, or until completely steamed through. Put in a sieve and press with a wooden spoon to get rid of any excess water.
In a skillet, heat the olive oil, add chopped onions and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and sauté for 1 minute more.
In a medium bowl, combine ricotta cheese with eggs and grated Parmesan. Add rice and nettles. Season to taste.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Place the phyllo under a damp towel to prevent it from drying out, and work quickly. If exposed to air, the phyllo will become dry, brittle and unworkable.
Butter the bottom and sides of a 9- by 13- inch baking dish. Place a layer of phyllo on the bottom of the dish and brush lightly with the butter, using a pastry brush. Repeat until you have used half the package of phyllo.
Pour the filling over the phyllo and sprinkle the feta on top. Place a layer of phyllo over the filling and butter lightly. Repeat until you have used all the phyllo. With a sharp knife, cut into diamond-shaped pieces before baking.
Bake for about 45 minutes, or until lightly browned. Serve with a salad of wild greens and herbs.

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