Have you ever eaten nettles?
The first time I ate them, they were baked, on a pizza. Wow! The flavor is something akin to spinach, but even better.
Nettle Soup: A Springtime Classic
The most classic way to serve nettles is in nettle soup, made with potatoes, stock, and a little cream. Luxurious and vibrant green, this soup is a bowl-licker.
By the way, you never forget your first encounter with stinging nettles. I was about 6 years old on a trail in Griffith Park in Los Angeles with my parents. My hand brushed against a plant alongside the path.
It felt like a hundred little needles poking the back of my hand. Soon, my skin was covered with little white bumps, proof of the pain.
A Long History of Medicinal Uses
What I didn't know then, nor could possibly appreciate at that age, was how nutritious nettles are, and how delicious!
Nettles have been used as an herbal remedy for thousands of years. They help detoxify the body, they are anti-inflammatory, they can help with circulation, allergies, hormonal regulation, and prostate issues. You can buy nettle supplements and nettle tea.
Where to Find Nettles
Given the sting factor, you won't find them in the grocery story. You either have to forage for them yourself (they grow wild on almost every continent), in which case, wear thick gloves, and pick the tender tops before they flower, or you can sometimes find them at your local farmer's market in very early spring.
They are harvestable for only a short season (a couple of weeks), so if you see them, buy them (or pick them, with gloves)! You can always blanch them and freeze them to use later.
Foraging for Nettles
Just as Elise shares, nearly anyone familiar with nettles has a story of their first prickly encounter with them in the wild. Their "stings" are tiny, delicate silicate tubes that radiate from the stem and leaves. These break off the plant and penetrate the skin, causing a painful rash that (fortunately) dissipates quickly. A quick remedy is to crush broadleaf plantain leaves (a weed often found growing nearby) and rub them on the irritated skin.
If you're absolutely sure that the plant you're harvesting is an edible nettle, wear gloves when gathering the juicy young leaves. Those who are especially deft can use a swift upward motion with one hand to pluck the tender tips off the plant gloveless, but this does take some practice to accomplish without stings. Another option? Use scissors to snip the tips off right into a bag or basket.
Harvest nettles when they are young and full of vital new growth. Once they are in flower, it's too late in the season. In most places, nettles will be ready to harvest mid-spring. The tips of the plants are the best parts for cooking with, versus the broader leaves from the base. You can skim leaves and stems from the top, leaving most of the plant behind to continue growing.
A Few Edible Species of Nettles
There are a few different edible species of nettles. Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), also known as common nettle, grow all over the world. Wood nettles (Laportea canadensis) appear later in the season (early summer, for some). Their leaves are more delicate.
Fresh, raw stinging nettles sting! Wear protective gloves when handling them, until after they are blanched.
You can easily make this soup without the cream, if you are avoiding dairy.
1/2 large shopping bag of fresh nettle tops
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon butter
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 pound Yukon Gold or russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
4 cups chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
1 to 2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or a couple sprigs of fresh thyme)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
Blanch the nettles:
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Wearing protective gloves, transfer the nettle tops into the boiling water. Blanch for 2 minutes.
Use tongs to lift the wilted blanched nettles out of the pot and transfer to the bowl of ice water to shock them. Strain in a colander.
Cut away and discard any large stems from the nettles. (This should be easier to do now that the nettle stingers have lost their sting due to the blanching.)
You should have 3 to 4 cups of blanched tender nettle tops and leaves for this recipe. Any blanched nettles not used at this point can be frozen for future use.
Sauté the shallots and celery:
In a 6-quart soup pot, heat the olive oil and butter on medium heat. Add the chopped shallots and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the potatoes, stock, bay leaf, and thyme:
Add the chopped potatoes, the chicken stock, bay leaf, and thyme. If using unsalted or low sodium stock, add one teaspoon of salt. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes.
Chop the blanched nettles, add to the soup pot, and simmer
Roughly chop the blanched nettles. Add 3 to 4 cups of the chopped blanched nettles to the pot. Add enough water to just cover the nettles and potatoes, 1 to 2 cups. Return to a simmer and simmer for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are soft and the nettles tender.
Purée the soup:
Remove the bay leaves (and thyme sprigs if using) from the pot. Using an immersion blender or working in batches with a standing blender, purée. Return to the pot and take off the heat.
Adjust the seasonings and serve:
Add salt to taste. Depending on the saltiness of the stock you are using, you may need to add at least a teaspoon or more to the soup. Add 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Add lemon juice. Right before serving, swirl in the cream. Adjust seasonings to taste.
Sprinkle with black pepper and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint to serve.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 12g||15%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||22%|
|Total Carbohydrate 45g||16%|
|Dietary Fiber 10g||35%|
|Total Sugars 8g|
|Vitamin C 14mg||68%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|