Gourmet Weeds-Mallow and Nettle

by Sarah on January 8, 2010

Nettle near Ramle Shuk

For a brief time, the empty lots and hills of Israel become overgrown with delicate green weeds covering the skeletal remains of last year’s plants.

Mallow growing near the shuk in ramle

Some gardeners try to tame this luscious exuberance that encroaches on their genetically modified petunias by pulling, mowing, spraying and covering every inch of their plots but each season they come again. Their grandparents would have been perplexed because this green nuisance they work so hard to remove was the food on their plates. A field of weeds would be transformed into delicately stuffed morsels, pastries, soups and many other dishes which helped add flavor and color to everyday meals as well essential for survival during years of famine. There are still a very few, mainly the Arabs of Israel and the Palestinian Territories  as well as the elderly who were born in Israel or immigrated from Arab countries who still use foraged greens.

This year I decided to incorporate forage greens in a variety of dishes and can’t understand why it is not more widely used (well, aside from the fact that it takes about three times as long to make).

Mallow (חֶלְמִית):

Mallow (Malva) is one of my favorite plants because it is robust and pervasive, growing well in a wide variety of environments, even in the middle of the city. Its smooth and perfectly shaped leaf is ideal for stuffing and it can also be used in omelets, soups and as a filling for pastries and pies.

Mallow omelet

Mallow is from the Malvaceae family with six species growing in Israel, all of them edible, although some species are better suited for stuffing such as Malva sylvestris. Despite being closely related, it is not in the same family as Mloukhia (Corchorus olitorius) which is also called Jew’s Mallow and used in the popular Egyptian dish of the same name.

Recently, on a visit to Hanagid Village in central Israel I met with Blanche Melamed (no, not my sister, wouldn’t that be nice), an Irish American who recently immigrated to Israel with her Israeli husband, Guy, a gifted artist who specializes in handmade glass beads.

In Guy's studio with boys melting glass

Blanche has an eye for making beautiful jewelry from Guy’s beads and I bought several pieces as gifts which I don’t want to give away.  After watching Guy make several intricate beads and trusting my sons in front of the blow torch we took a walk in a mallow field in the back of his studio. Guy’s mother, who is a native of Jerusalem, told us how she used to make mallow and sorrel soup when food was hard to obtain.

Blanche's dog walking throught the mallow

Not only are the leaves edible but the fruits can also be eaten. Mallow is called Khoubeza in Arabic, meaning bread, because of the starchy seeds were used in place of bread during hard times.

Nettle (Urtica, סִרְפַּד)

When I told my son I was making nettle pie he looked at me, incredulous, remembering all too well falling off the mulberry tree into a lush patch of stinging nettle while he was dressed only in summer clothes, most of his body exposed.

He shrieked in extreme pain as I ran outside in panic looking for him, my body drowning in adrenalin, but it was only the welts and sting of the nettle that triggered his wails, not a broken limb. The rest of the day I lay limp on the couch until the fear seeped away. Luckily, the Israeli stinging nettles appear to be quite tame compared to a species in New Zealand called Urtica ferox which has been known to kill large animals and in one case even a human.

nettle

After reading about Northern Greek pies from Paula Wolfert’s cookbook, I decided that I wanted to try cooking them and braced with heavy plastic gloves and scissors I began collecting them from the nearby plot while passersby asked what in the world I was up to. Although nettle is an evil plant to pick, stinging right through my gloves and even my pants the youngest leaves are wonderful to eat once they cooked. By the strange looks of people’s face, I don’t think anybody believed me.

In this pie, nettle is added together with spinach and Swiss chard after sauteing or boiling it first, using a recipe similar to spanakopita.

cheese and greens fill phyllo dough pie

Not much is known about the mechanism of nettle stings but it appears that oxalic and tartaric acid are the two pain inducing toxins found in nettle hairs as well as histamine, formic acid and serotonin in variable amounts. Nettle is highly regarded as a medicinal plant for many conditions, including for reducing blood glucose levels and is used as an ingredient in an Arab herbal medicine to treat diabetes. There is also evidence that it helps alleviate arthritic and joint pain although I doubt belly flopping into a patch of nettle as my son did is the prefered method of treatment.

Nettle is a very popular edible and medicinal herb not only in the Middle East but throughout much of the world including India, North America and Africa.

References:

Identification of oxalic acid and tartaric acid as major persistent pain-inducing toxins in the stinging hairs of the nettle, Urtica thunbergiana.

Fu HY, Chen SJ, Chen RF, Ding WH, Kuo-Huang LL, Huang RN. ,Ann Bot. 2006 Jul;98(1):57-65. Epub 2006 May 4.

Maintaining A Physiological Blood Glucose Level with ‘Glucolevel’, A Combination of Four Anti-Diabetes Plants Used in the Traditional Arab Herbal Medicine

Omar Said, Stephen Fulder, Khaled Khalil, Hassan Azaizeh, Eli Kassis, and Bashar Saad, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2008 December; 5(4): 421–428.

Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, by Paula Wolfert

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