Monday, March 10, 2008

A Nettlesome Paradox: Stinging Nettle Soup

A wise man once said it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I thought about the merits of this argument as I skulked around the patch, keeping a lookout for any joggers, dog-walkers, or other unsuspecting law-abiders. This was city property, after all, and though my quarry was generally classified as a weed—and a belligerent one at that—I wasn't relishing an opportunity to explain my quest for local superfoods to the authorities. A couple power-walkers chugged by and then a birdwatcher, who failed to notice a pileated woodpecker hammering on a snag right above our heads. Now the coast was, as they say, clear. I pulled on my rubber gloves, got down in the dirt, and drew my kitchen shears. Stinging nettle soup was on the menu...

It didn't take long before a nettle caught me in an unguarded moment. The sleeve of my shirt had inched up enough above my glove to reveal an isthmus of vulnerable skin at the wrist. Ouch! The sting, while not nearly as painful as a yellowjacket or fire ant, works on similar principles: tiny hairs deliver a jolt of formic acid and histamine. Unlike a bee sting, though, a brush with nettles tends to linger for several hours. But then, never did a plant hurt so good. Nettles are one of the most nutritious greens on the planet. This may seem paradoxical until you consider that a tasty elixir of spring must have appealed immensely to animals stirring awake from winter slumbers, and so the nettle has evolved a formidable defense. As with mushrooms, you have to wonder about the process of trial-and-error that took place before humans learned how to safely gather and eat nettles. Turns out, cooked or dried they lose their sting.

Foraging for stinging nettles has the added bonus pleasure of getting one outside and into the early spring woodlands. The chorus of birdsong, to name one of my favorite signs of the season, has picked up dramatically in the last week. Sure, the robins—those over-achievers of the avian world—have been singing since late January. But as I arrived at my patch I heard roving bands of pine siskins chittering in the treetops. A mixed flock of kinglets, chickadees, and nuthatches gossiped lower in the canopy. The high-pitched bragging of brown creepers ("see-see-look-at-me") rang out through the woods. Indian plums were just leafing out, with a few brave rosettes testing the air, and the first bright green leaves of spring wildflowers were unfurling out of the duff. All of this potent reawakening is part of the nettle.

Stinging Nettle Soup

4 tbsp butter
1 medium Walla Walla Sweet, or yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut up
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1 large bunch stinging nettles
nutmeg or other spices
salt and pepper to taste
heavy cream

Saute the onions in butter until near caramelized. Add the garlic and potatoes and cook over medium heat several minutes. Spice to taste. Add stock and water and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add nettles, stir, and cover. Cook 10 minutes on a low boil. Puree in blender, food mill, or processor, then return to pot. Add stock or cream if necessary; check seasoning. Serve with heavy cream.

The finished soup will be sweetened by the caramelized onion and thickened by the potato, but the real treat is the vernal shot of nettle. Reminiscent of spinach though wilder, nettles have a fresh, peppery zing that evokes the moist woodlands of their home. Later in the spring, when the days are warmer, you can omit the potatoes/cream and skip the puree step to simply enjoy a refreshing soup of chopped nettles. There are few foods better for you—or tastier


Chickenofthewoods said...


I read quite a bit when i returned home from my first nettling of the year. The Wikipedia
entry states "The nature of the toxin secreted by nettles is not settled. The stinging hairs of most nettle species contain formic acid, serotonin and histamine; however recent studies of Urtica thunbergiana (Fu et al, 2006) implicate oxalic acid and tartaric acid rather than any of those substances, at least in that species."

This plant blows me away. The things it does for us fit right in to the cycle of seasons... I get serotonin just when i need it most. And the juice of the plant, internally, helps lessen the effects of any stings by virtue of it's ANTI-histaminic action !?
"Bioflavonoids in nettle leaves and roots are generally anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine." -from the article you linked to.

Hey thanks for blogging, i really enjoy it.

Langdon Cook said...

So I'm sitting here nursing a nagging sore spot on my finger where I just tested some of my drying nettles. (There were still bits of duff on the screens from last year's morel crop.) Anyway, the nettles are apparently not FULLY DRY because they still sting!

Have you heard that some people deliberately sting their joints to prevent arthritis and other nasty symptoms of aging? I suspect we've barely scratched the surface of the mighty nettle, scientifically at least.

Thanks for the Wikipedia link. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I've been eating nettles from my next door empty lot for a few years-mainly because I like their taste. I keep harvesting them until the get too buggy, around June in the NW. This year my fav nettle recipe is a rustic italian torta made in a skillet on a burner (and flipped over). I'll blanch the nettles, add some leeks or onions, maybe some spicy sausage and then some cheese or egg to glue it together. Made it last night.

Also discovered it's a favored egg laying place for butterflies.

kimmy said...

blanched my crop this morning. we'll test out your soup recipe soon! i love your blog, i feel we are kindred wild-food spirits.

Love for the beginning that confirms the ending said...

how do you prepare the nettles for the soup? do you cut them small and throw them in?

thanks rachael

Langdon Cook said...

Rachael - The simplest way is to wash the nettles and add directly to the boiling soup. Then use an immersion blender or food processor.