The nettles are up! I’ve never been so grateful to see a wild green. Nettles sting, yes. But they’re free and prolific. And right now, they’re tall enough to harvest.
I first learned about nettles from my friend Ish. Her mom knew all kinds of folk remedies and recipes, and she brought me a nettle soup after our first daughter was born. Nettles have been used as a tonic since ancient times. But they’re not just good for you, they’re good, period. They have a kick that spinach lacks.
Nettles grow all over the world, but Ish showed me where to find them here. We looked in disturbed areas with wet soil — paths along streams or ponds and along dirt roadsides. She told me that nettles sting thanks to hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on the leaves and stems, which apparently act like tiny hypodermic needles. When you brush against them, they inject histamine and a cocktail of other unpleasant chemicals into your skin that make it red and painful and itchy. She taught me to hunt for nettles in long sleeves and long pants, and to wear gloves while cutting the leaves off the stems. And she showed me how the hairs disappear with cooking.
The one stroke of good luck we are having these days is an early spring and plenty of time for walks. Keep your eyes peeled and your gloves in your pocket, and you just might come home with fresh greens for this soup.
Irish Nettle Soup
Makes 2 big bowls or 4 small ones
This soup is adapted from Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking. In light of the fact that we’re all trying to take fewer trips to the store, I’ve made suggestions for substitutions at the end of the recipe. You’d be surprised what you can get away with.
3 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
1 qt. chicken stock
5 oz. fresh nettles, washed and chopped
1/2 cup whole milk
Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and potato and stir. Season with salt and pepper, cover the pot, and turn it down to low. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are beginning to get soft.
Add the stock, turn up the heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat back down and simmer until the potatoes begin to fall apart.
Add the nettle leaves and simmer another few minutes. Be careful not to overcook or the greens will lose their flavor.
Add the milk, puree the soup, and taste for salt. Season as needed and serve piping hot.
Substitutions: Instead of butter, you could use olive oil, vegetable oil, lard, chicken fat, or tallow. In place of the onion, scallions, shallots, or leeks work, or 1/4 cup of wild onions or chives; or 3 cloves minced garlic. Substitute a turnip, rutabaga, parsnip, or Jerusalem artichokes for the potato. Use vegetable stock or salty water if you don’t have chicken stock. Any kind of milk or cream will do — or omit it.