These spaetzle were the side dish that I made with my wild duck cacciatore the other day. The recipe is from Hunter Gardener Angler Cook, one of my favorite sources for information about hunting and foraging. Hank Shaw creates beautiful, upscale recipes for wild foods, and has a book coming out that you can be sure will be on my kitchen shelf. Finding the Forgotten Feast is on pre-order at Amazon.com here. His recipes are for dishes that you’d except to find in a high-end restaurant using expensive ingredients, and it never ceases to amaze me that the ingredients are actually all around us, waiting for us to find them. If you take some time and learn what to look for, anyone can make forage and cook this food.
Wild stinging nettles are high in Iron, Vitamin C, and many other vitamins and minerals. They grow throughout the United States in a variety of areas, often in the woods with filtered or full sunlight. I’ve seen them in growing in open fields and among the Eucalyptus trees near the beach, too. This website has some good pictures of nettles in the wild. Don’t forget- when you’re foraging for wild plants, make sure that the area hasn’t been contaminated in any way, whether by pesticides, run-off from a nearby road, or, if you live at my house, pets (dog pee isn’t toxic, but it sure it gross to think about eating it).
There are only a couple of ingredients for this recipe: flour, nutmeg, a little salt and sugar, fresh eggs and some stinging nettles. The nettles function very much like spinach, so if you really can’t get your hands on any, you could substitute either fresh spinach or frozen chopped spinach.
Whenever I tell people about nettles, I get a lot of comments along the lines of “Yeah, you’re insane, have you touched those things? No way am I eating that.” I swear to you though, as long as they’re cooked, you’re totally fine and will NOT end up going to the hospital with stingers in your throat. I promise. It is, however, incredibly important that you protect your hands and arms when you pick them, because those little suckers inflict some serious pain if you touch them when they’re raw. I wear heavy gloves and a long sleeved shirt or coat and it works fine. After you pick them, put them straight into some kind of container where you won’t touch them, like a tupperware or a thick bag. From there they go straight into boiling water.
You’ll want to have two pots of water boiling. First you blanch the nettles for about 3 minutes to remove the stingers and clean off any dirt or bugs that might be hiding in the leaves. The nettles are now safe to handle with your bare hands. In between blanches, shock them in an ice bath to keep the greens from overcooking and maintain their bright green color. The second pot of boiling water finishes cooking the nettles.
The nettles I was able to forage were on the older side, but it doesn’t mean they’re unusable. Their stems were tough and fibrous and they had started going to seed. If you run into this, just run your fingers along the stem to separate the leaves from the stem (just like cooking with big kale leaves). The seeds might get mixed in with your greens, but you won’t notice in the final product. Feed the stems to the chickens or put them in the compost.
Once you’ve actually got the nettles processed and ready to cook with, you can either puree them or chop them up finely. The original recipe on Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said to puree them with the milk, but my blender just broke, so we’re not doing that.
Now combine the nettles with the other wet ingredients, milk and beaten eggs. I happened to be out of cow milk when I made these and so I used soy milk instead. I know, I know, eew, soy. The recipe turned out fine though. I also was distracted and put in three eggs instead of the two that the original recipe called for, and the recipe turned out fine.
Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, forming a sticky, moist batter. It reminded me of the consistency of a wet biscuit dough.
The next step sounds a lot simpler and cleaner written down in a recipe than it actually is. Hold the colander over the pot of boiling water, and push the batter through the holes so that little pieces fall off into the boiling water. You probably will end up with a big sticky mess, like I did:
The problem was that the individual piece didn’t want to fall off the colander (maybe it was the accidental extra egg?) It still works though, just take a small knife and flick the individual pieces into the water. It will be sloppy. The point of spaetzle, though, is not to have perfect, uniform dumplings. The irregular, rustic shapes adds to the charm of this rustic dish. Just roll with it.
The spaetzle will float to the top when they’re almost done cooking, almost like gnocchi or other fresh pastas. I worked in batches, pulling out the cooked spaetzle and putting them in an ice bath while I waited for the other batches to finish cooking.
Drain off the ice water. The spaetzle will hold well in the fridge for several days at this point. To serve, I give them a quick saute in some butter with garlic and fresh cracked black pepper.
Stinging Nettle Spaetzle, from Hunter Gardener Angler Cook
To read the original recipe, written by Hank Shaw, go here. This is my very slightly adapted version.
cooking time: about 40 minutes, with 10 minutes of active cooking time
- 1 c. blanched stinging nettles, finely chopped
- 1 c. milk (soy milk will work as well as traditional cow milk)
- 3 medium eggs, beaten (the original recipe calls for 2 eggs)
- 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 tsp. salt
- To process the nettles: Bring pots of water to a boil to blanch the nettles. Liberally season the water in both pots with salt. Put about one pound of unprocessed nettles into the water, being careful to transfer the nettles from their holding container and into the water without touching them (to avoid being stung). Cook for 3 minutes. Drain the nettles, and transfer into an ice-bath. Wait 1-2 minutes to let the nettles cool. Remove from ice water, and wring out any excess water. Put the blanched nettles into the second pot of water, and cook for 2-5 minutes depending on the age (cook young nettles for just a few minutes, older ones need more time to become tender). Drain, and rinse with cold water. Strip the leaves from the stalks and discard the stalks, and pat dry with a paper towel or dish cloth.
- Combine dry ingredients in one bowl. Whisk together finely chopped, dried nettles, eggs, and milk in another bowl. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until combined. The dough should be wet and sticky, but hold together.
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil for cooking the spaetzle. Transfer the dough to a colander. Holding the colander over the boiling water, push the dough through the colander so that little pieces fall into the water. Use a small knife to flick off any stragglers that don’t fall right away. The spaetzle will float to the top of the water, let them boil for another minute, and then they’re done. It’s easiest to work in batches, pushing through about 1/3 of the batter into the water at a time. Remove the spaetzle from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer to an ice-water bath. Keep going until all the batter is cooked and all the spaetzle is in the ice-water bath. Drain the spaetzle and hold in the refrigerator for up to three days before serving. The quality, of course, will be the best if you serve them that day.
- To serve, heat a tablespoons of butter in a saute pan with some minced garlic, add in the spaetzle, and cook until heated through. Feel free to add mushrooms, scallions, cream, or anything else that’s exciting to you. These are delicious little noodles and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!