Green gunk spiked with spices. That may not sound, or look the most appetising of things, but saag is one of my favourite Indian curries. Saag is most often made with spinach, in which case it's also called palak, though purists would insist it be only made with mustard greens (read this brilliant, if slightly intimidating post by Shaheen of Allotment2Kitchen on the difference). I didn't grow up in an Indian household, so I perhaps get a bit of leeway and flexibility here. For me, saag is a delicious way to use up a lot of fresh greens in something other than soup. I remember the first time I made saag was last spring, when I went a bit mad and overboard with the spinach. Spinach melt down beautifully when cooked, saving me a fair bit of fridge space.
I guess I just don't learn my lesson because I went a bit mad again when I saw stinging nettles. I don't have an insane love for them, in fact I had never tried them before (nettle tea made by infusing dried leaves don't count right), but curiosity had me excitedly loading more nettles than I realise into the bag. I blame the gloves.
Once back, I had to figure out how to deal with these stinging monsters. Google, ever reliable, says that nettles lose their sting once cooked, so the second thing I did was to plunge them into boiling water. The first was to get them out of the bag using heavy-duty fluoresecent yellow gloves (the only ones I could find in the house). I had a bite, it tasted kind of similar to spinach but with a stronger taste of iron, which I quite like. What I didn't fancy though, was the rough, furry texture, which got me to blend/pound it up into a puree, which then got me thinking about saag. Saag can be made with mutton or whatever meat, but since it's also National Vegetarian Week, I made the curry with crispy cubed new potatoes, a cross between saag aloo (with potato) and saag/palak paneer (with fried cubes of Indian cottage cheese).
STINGING NETTLE SAAG ALOO
4-6 new potatoes, depending on size (jersey royals at their best now that it's spring)
4 large bunches of stinging nettles
1 handful fresh coriander
8 cloves of garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
2 green chillies, chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tbsp coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 cup organic, whole (full-fat please) yogurt
squeeze of lemon
unrefined sea salt
2 tbsp of ghee
1. Cook potatoes in boiling salted water for about 5 min, or cooked till just tender. Drain then cut into fairly equal-sized cubes. Over medium heat, add half the ghee, and fry the potato cubes, flipping till crispy on all edges.
2. Blanch nettles in boiling water for 1 min, uncovered. Drain. Refresh with cold water. Puree with the fresh coriander.
3. Over medium heat, add the ghee. Toast the whole spices. Add the onions plus pinch of salt, garlic and green chillies, and saute till the onions turn translucent, but aren't browned, before sauteeing the ground spices till fragrant.
4. Add the pureed nettles, season and bring to a boil, before adding the yogurt and simmering gently for a couple more min. Return the fried potatoes to the pan, remove from heat, and gently toss to coat.
5. Finish off with a squeeze of lemon (granny says that helps in the digestion of greens, and grannies are always right;) ) and a a pretty drizzle of yogurt if you remember to save some.
Cooked this way, the stinging nettles melted into a lush green sauce, rich with flavour and fragrance from the spices. This curry isn't creamy enough to run off the spoon, instead it has a slight body and thickness to it that allows it to cling nicely to the surface of the crispy potatoes. You could very well do this with spinach, or most leafy greens, if you can't get hold of stinging nettles (indeed, I did it a long time ago very much more simply with spinach and boiled jersey royal babies). There's also an earthier note to this saag; and for lack of a better word, a certain "weedy" taste from the nettles.
I do recommend people try it, or any so-called weed, really. I got these free but I didn't exactly go picking them myself, though I've always loved the idea of eating these unloved wild plants and eating off the land. (According to that same Google search haha) Stinging nettles are rich in iron and have a history of being used medicinally for women's health, and as a herb for all sorts of inflammatory diseases, so it's even more reason to get past your fear of stings and needles. And it's free food, come on!