Nettle is great. Its all around, good for you, plus there’s the element of danger when you’re harvesting. It’s like collecting sea urchins. Will it get you? Are those gloves really thick enough to ward off those spiny stems? A question Ive been forced to answer in the negative far too many times. For those of you that like a bit of danger with your foraging, but aren’t quite up for wild mushroom collecting or boar hunting, the nettle is a good bet.
There are two kinds of nettle that grow in our area (that area being Northern CA).Urtica diocea, which is also known as river nettle, and Urtica urens, which I call farm nettle, its more often cultivated, and much less intense, cousin. River nettle is what grows most often in the wild, so that’s what I end up using most of the time. You find it often growing in stream beds and in other moist nutrient rich environments. “Farm Nettle” can also be found wild, although much less often, in what are referred to as “disturbed places”. Areas where the earth has just been upset for some reason (hint: there’s some in Golden Gate park if you know where to look).
River nettle (diocea) is much more intense than in both sting and flavor. Whereas farm (urens) will give you a bit of a prick to let you know its nettle, river nettle will bite you, a searing pain that, instead of going away after several hours of throbbing, actually seems to turn into a general numbness/tingle for as much as 48 hours (hint: use vinegar to get rid of the sting, or if you’re near a marsh, the goo from the base of cattails works too). If you’re using it in soup, river nettles are really the best. The intensity comes through in the soup in all the best ways.
With that said, lets get on with it. Go collect some! I wont tell you my spots, but I will tell you that they like to grow in moist, nutrient rich soils. Try to harvest them before the plant has gone to seed. As in all plants, you want to collect them when they’re putting the most amount of energy into the part you want to eat…perhaps confusing, but a good principle. When plants are flowering, eat the flower, when they’re shooting up out of the ground in spring, eat the shoot, when they’ve gone to seed, eat the seed (although I havnt heard of people eating nettle seed, I don’t see why not). Enough talk, on to the recipe.
This soup is a real standby for The Wild Kitchen (my underground restaurant). People love it, so it keeps coming back from month to month while nettle is in season.
-1 lb nettle (collect it, or you can often find it at farmers markets in season)
-1 lb russet potatoes
-1 lb leek
-6 Cups chicken stock
-2 Tbsp butter
-Salt/pepper to taste
-Small tub crème fraiche
-Heavy gloves (seriously. If you’re using the thin latex kind, so popular in restaurant kitchens and the nether regions of the airport security line, wear double, or even triple. A good thick pair of dishwashing gloves works perfectly)
-Heavy bottomed soup pot
-Stand up or hand (immersion) blender
1.First, you’ve got to deal with the nettle. Put a pot of salted water on to boil. With your gloves on, use scissors to cut the leaves from the woody stem, discarding any brown leaves. Wash under cold water. Get a mixing bowl, and fill it with iced and salted water. Throw nettle into boiling water for 5 minutes, drain, then immediately place in ice water. This is called blanching and shocking. The boil gets rid of the nettle sting, and the ice water helps it retain its vibrant green color. Once they’re cold, squeeze water out of nettles, and reserve.
2. Cut off the white section of the leeks, slice them lengthwise, and wash very well. Tons of dirt likes to get stuck in leeks, and it’s the last thing you want in your soup. After they’re clean, chop them and reserve.
3. Dice potatoes.
4. Melt butter in pot over medium heat, making sure not to let it burn. When it begins to bubble, throw in the leeks, cook 5 minutes (if they start to brown, turn down the flame, you want them to sweat). Add potatoes, cook 5 minutes. Add nettle, cook 5 minutes.
5. Pour in chicken stock, mix, turn up heat until it comes to a boil, then turn down to a simmer.
6. Allow to simmer 20-30 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Turn off heat and either blend with you immersion blender, or if using a stand-up, blend in batches with a ventilated blender (take that little plastic thing out of the middle of the lid), and a towel on top. With the danger sounding too much like you dad, BE CAREFUL!. Hot soup on the face is not fun.
7. When its blended, add two spoonsfulls of crème fraiche, mix. Serve hot with a drizzle of crème fraiche on top. This soup will taste quite “green”. Crème fraiche will balance it to your liking.
8. Enjoy! And regal your friends with your daring tales of nettle foraging, they’ll be impressed.