Nettle Cream Soup
The world of food is full of some fascinating transformations, many of which involve an unpalatable or downright poisonous item morphing into something edible – even fantastic. We are often reminded that certain discarded parts of a plant are poisonous (rhubarb and potato leaves, for example), but even some of the actual food products we consume start out life in a dangerously inedible form. Both cashews and tapioca are straight-up poisonous if not prepared properly before consuming. But stinging nettles are a particularly interesting example. They don’t so much poison you – they just try to hurt you.
Stinging nettles aren’t exactly fooling anyone – after all, the word ‘stinging’ is right there in the name. They do look fairly innocuous at first, but the tiny, glassy, stinging hairs that cover every stem are pretty obvious – and once you’ve experienced their burn, you notice them all that much faster. My first experience with stinging nettles came one spring in Montreal. I was out birding (yep, I’m that kind of nerd too) when I slipped off of a wet boardwalk and landed in a small patch of spring greenery. Intense pain instantly began coursing through my leg as it brushed through the stand of nettles. The sensation was so sudden and so intense that I first thought I had cut myself open on something during my tumble. I grabbed at my leg to assess my injury, but there was nothing to see but some bumpy red skin. It was then that I first really noticed just how distinctive young stinging nettles are – and I’ve never failed to notice them since. My leg hurt for three solid days, so the memory had plenty of time to sink in.
So with that lovely introduction in mind, you might be wondering why on Earth anyone would want to eat these things. Long story short – they’re free, and they’re delicious. But we’re going to need to go a little deeper than that.
There’s a common misconception out there that stinging nettles cause injury by stabbing you, in much the same way that a rosebush would, but this isn’t true, or at least it isn’t the primary cause of pain. The stems are covered in minute transparent spines, but the damage they cause isn’t really mechanical in nature. When these hairs are agitated, the end snaps off, converting the hair into a tiny hypodermic needle. When a hair pierces the skin (which is easy enough, as they’re quite thin), it begins pumping in a chemical cocktail made up of acetylcholine, histamine, 5-hydroxytryptamine, moroidin, leukotrienes, and at least one pain-inducing acid. That’s literally a lot to take in, but the basic idea is that the stinging nettle is easy to notice and difficult to forget. But something amazing happens when you cook (or thoroughly dry) nettles: the volatile compounds are destroyed or inactivated, and the sting disappears completely. When you taste young nettles, you understand why the plant is so protective; the leaves are soft and delicate, with a sweet, mild, very enjoyable flavour. If the sting wasn’t there, I think that the young leaves would get gobbled up pretty fast.
As lovely as nettles are, they don’t make for a particularly interesting soup all by themselves. This soup appears in various guises all across the cooler regions of Europe, but the premise is generally the same – nettles provide the distinct, sweet-green flavour, while a good root-vegetable stock provides the base flavour. In fact, it’s really the basic vegetable soup that makes or breaks this meal. The nettles are actually the easiest component to work with (as long as you have gloves), as they simply need to be blanched and drained.
I make this dish a little on the lighter side than some versions – the butter is essential for the flavour, but I think heavy cream is a bit too much. The pureed nettles and potatoes already lend a creamy richness, so I find half-and-half works quite well to round things out. I looked at quite a few other recipes while designing this version, but it was this particular recipe from River Cottage that influenced my recipe the most (the carrots make a big difference).
Whether you’re new to foraging or an experienced gatherer, nettles represent a simple and delicious way to get out into the wild and find some free food. Just make sure you wear gloves (and preferably long pants).
Nettles are a very popular wild food, and may be found in some farmers markets. If you can’t find them for sale, they’re very common in the wild across a lot of North America and Eurasia. If you do forage for your own, make absolutely certain that you know what you’re picking. Nettles are a very distinctive plant, but any wild food should only be eaten if you’re 100% certain about its identity. You’ll want to wear gloves and choose the youngest, tender stems and new leaves. When you are working with the leaves, be sure to continue wearing gloves. Wash the nettles thoroughly and pick out any stems or damaged leaves.
While a smooth, pureed cream soup is the most common way to prepare nettles, there’s no reason that you couldn’t do something a little chunkier. If you want to, you could puree the blanched nettles with some of the broth but leave the other vegetables whole.
Note that this recipe is very easily doubled to serve 8 (or more if served as a small starter soup).
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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