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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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Paula Wolfert January 8, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Terrific piece and pictures.

Baqqoula is the word for mallow in Morocco and its the name of the salad on page 78. Check it out and use mallow in the recipe. I think it’s dreamy.

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Yaelian the Finn January 8, 2010 at 2:43 pm

That pie looks so delicious Sarah! I love khubeiza and first got to know it when I lived a few years ago in Karmiel.Here in Holon it grows quite near to me but unfortunately the area seems to be popular with dogs too…..Nettle soup I have had in Finland,where it is quite popular.

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Barry January 9, 2010 at 1:48 am

Great to see someone trying to place ‘weeds’ back on the plate, Sarah. We have Mallow growing around where we live here in Turkey – but we never knew its name. It is lovely though. Nettles used to be served up all the time in England years ago but people grew out of the tradition. Thankfully, the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is doing his bit to repopularise hedgerow goodies so they might make a comeback.

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Yael January 9, 2010 at 2:58 am

Another wow post, what wonderful stuff you made out of what most people think as weeds. Had a really nice time yesterday, forgot your birthday present…..Shabat-Shalom!

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Baroness Tapuzina January 10, 2010 at 5:38 am

Sarah that looks absolutely delicious. I have to try that even though I am scared to pick it. I came in contact with nettles on a hike in Germany and it took half an hour for the stinging to subside.

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Blanche January 10, 2010 at 9:46 am

What a great post!!!! Thank you so much for including us. I especially love the photo of my dog standing in the field. It was a beautiful day. One to cherish for sure, especially when the heat returns to this part of the world! :)

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Cori January 11, 2010 at 3:11 am

Great entry. Appeals to me on several levels as I have a background in ethnobotany, enjoy cooking, lived in Israel for a year long ago, and I know Blanche and Guy! Glad to have found your great blog.

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My Edible Yard January 11, 2010 at 5:00 am

Thanks for a fabulously informative post. We all need to be making use of the food grown around us. Looks delicious, too.

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Nate @ House of Annie January 11, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Wow, that nettle pie looks fabulous! I think it’s great you found such ingredients in abundance.

Since you’re using foraged ingredients, would you like to enter this post in our Grow Your Own roundup this month? Full details at

http://chezannies.blogspot.com/2010/01/rambutans-plus-grow-your-own.html

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Cmiranda January 22, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Really enjoyed reading your post. Always look forward to hearing about foods that have been forgotten and neclected and are now making a comback in new and intresting ways.Thanks again, Sarah.

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Margaret October 2, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Here in Washington State we also have lots of nettles. To stop the sting you put – darn I forget the name, I’m getting too old – it’s a little plant that grows where nettles do. Round or spear shaped with straight veins and it sends up a stalk with a brown fuzzy seed head. Put the leaf on the sting an it goes away. We have done it lots of time.

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Sarah October 2, 2012 at 7:45 pm

In New York we used to have a plant called jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) which we were always told was an antidote to the stinging. We never tried it though.

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Margaret October 3, 2012 at 1:00 am

Naturally I remembered the name in the middle of the night. The name, according to Wikipedia is Greater Plantain (Plantago major) It’s been 30 years since we lived where we needed it and some of those kids are now grandparents.

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Sarah October 8, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Margaret, Thanks for giving me the name of the plant. I didn’t know Plantago was good for nettle stings.

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