Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a foraging favourite, so it doesn’t need much of an introduction. I probably don’t need to tell you that it has been a beloved spring tonic since time immemorial, or that many consider it the most nutritious of all wild plants, jam packed with vitamins, minerals, even protein. But aside from its nutritional and medicinal properties, it’s tasty versatility in any number of dishes probably has a lot to do with its popularity.
So a few days ago when I received a lovely big bag of just picked baby nettles as a gift – I wanted to make something highlighting their enlivening freshness. I decided to go with rice balls because they’re easy, and while they’re still substantial and carby, they are a definite move toward the lighter dishes of spring.
Nettles have been described as tasting like spinach with a herbaceous flavour. But they are generally mild and I wanted to give my balls just a bit more punch. So I added a liberal dose of wild garlic or crow garlic greens (Allium vineale). This is an invasive wild onion with a garlic like bulb that grows in abundance around the PNW. In spring it’s delicate greens taste like a slightly sharper garlic chive (see more identification info here). But unlike chives it holds its oniony flavour wonderfully when cooked. If Allium vineale doesn’t grow near you don’t worry, there is probably another variety of wild onion like Allium canadense that does.
I topped the balls off with a savory Gomasio (sea salt, sesame seeds, seaweed flakes and nettle seeds) and splash of lemon & Tamari (soy sauce). If you don’t have Gomasio just use sesame seeds and a sprinkle of sea salt. The final result is a nutritious, simple, savory and very pretty side dish.
Mostly you’ll find nettles in wettish damp areas, usually not in full sun. When you harvest you want to pinch off the topmost leaves and remember it’s called “stinging” nettle with reason. The leaves and the stalk are covered with tiny hair-like daggers containing stinging chemicals and acids. I’ve come to secretly enjoy the tingly sharp sensation but for newbies be warned – it hurts! So use gloves if you’ve never harvested before.
All you need to do to make your nettles “stingless” is give them a quick blanching in hot water. Or just use gloves to chop them too. Once exposed to heat in the frying pan the “sting” is gone.
For this recipe I used about 1 cup of chopped nettle leaves and 1/2 cup of minced crow garlic chives. I sautéed these lightly in olive oil (you could use coconut or sesame oil for a tasty alternative). You want them a little more cooked than just wilted…you don’t want any raw stringy bits to detract from your rice balls. You could also add a wee bit of ginger, I haven’t tried it yet, but think it would make a lovely touch.
I used an organic brown short grain rice but you can use sushi or sticky rice – just remember the fluffy long grain rice is not going to work here. You’ll also need to adjust your rice cooking time according to the type of rice you use – i.e. some sushi rices take less time to cook.
You will mix your cooked nettles and onion mixture into the cooked rice then let it sit overnight (or refrigerate for at least two hours) before shaping into balls. Be sure to really press down when you form the balls, compacting the rice, otherwise you’ll end up with a ball that will crumble away!
Stinging Nettle & Wild Onion Rice Balls
Makes about a dozen rice balls.
- 1 cup of nettles roughly chopped.
- 1/2 cup of minced wild onion greens
- a few tablespoons of oil (olive, coconut or sesame).
- 3 cups short-grain brown rice.
- 4 1⁄2 cups water.
- 2 tbsp. salt.
- 2 tbsp. of Gomashio (or sesame seeds mixed with sea salt).
- Splash of Tamari or soy sauce for serving.
- Place the rice in a large bowl with water and stir the rice until the water becomes cloudy. Drain away the cloudy water, add more fresh water, and rinse again. Pour the cleaned rice into a large colander and let drain.
- In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the rice with the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, give it a stir and cover with a tight-fitting lid, cook approx. 45 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let the rice stand, still covered, until tender, about 10 -20 minutes.
- While rice is cooking prepare and cook your greens. Roughly chop your nettles and mince your wild onion. Place your oil in the frying pan and add your greens. Saute on low to medium heat until soft. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Using a rice paddle or flat spoon, stir your rice to fluff and separate the grains. Add your greens and mix together thoroughly. *If your rice is crunchy at the end of cooking time, it may be necessary to add 1-2 Tbsp. liquid and cook longer.
- Set aside your rice mixture for two hours. This isn’t absolutely necessary but will create better flavour!
- Set a bowl of cold water at your work space so that you can continuously wet your hands to prevent the rice from sticking to your hands. Scoop up a small handful of the rice then pack and compress firmly with both hands to pack the rice into a dense ball.
- Place on a serving dish. Sprinkle with Gomasio, a dash of Tamari, and you’re ready to eat!