May 23, 2006
Food that fights back: The Nettle Challenge

nettles.jpgNot long ago, Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini wrote about her first experience with nettles. And I thought "Damn, I've been meaning to tackle that one for a while now!" And then I decided, well, perhaps there is someone in the world who doesn't read her blog and DOES read ours who might be interested. Or maybe not. But either way, I'm tired of feeling like I've been a wimp on this one and not tried the Food That Fights Back. So I bought some at the organic market. This stuff grows everywhere, but the particular bag I bought came from the Paris area, not far from Disneyland Paris.

My first contact with nettles was down in the Vendée region. "Attention aux orties!" my friend warned. Never having seen nettles before in my life, and never having encountered the French word for "stinging nettles" in six years of French classes I blundered around going "wha? where? huh?" until the stinging came into play. I learned three important lessons that day: 1) what stinging nettles are called in French (a dictionary settled that) 2) what they looked like (practical experience) and 3) that vinegar is a very effective remedy to the stinging reaction.

Since then my beloved Critic has explained to me repeatedly that there is a plant which nearly always grows near nettles that is also a remedy. I have not gone so far as to test this theory though I'm more than happy to look on while he demonstrates. (So far he hasn't offered.)

When I bought the nettles at the market I was surprised to see the stall-holder sweep them up in her hands with no protection. "Doesn't that hurt?" I asked her. She shrugged her shoulders and told me you just get used to it over time. When I was younger and shorter I remember my Austrian grandmother used to wash the dishes in water so hot that it brought tears to my eyes. She had the same response and I have to say that I can take water which is pretty hot today. So perhaps they are both right. But I wasn't going to touch those nettles without gloves.

Like Clotilde, I went with the classic use of nettles: dark green soup, seething with vitamins and deeply fragrant with a kind of a seaweed aroma. It was very tasty, reminiscent of cress soup but indefinably different. I think next time round I might try it with basil and garlic, a bit less liquid, as a powerful pasta sauce. A bit like pesto but lessy sunny. Nevertheless, I am perfectly happy with my first taste of nettles as a soup.

One funny thing to note: cooking with them (and in fact writing about them) brought about an attack of compulsive itchiness everywhere. It didn't matter that I had rubber gloves on (or, now, that it's been a few days): I was/am itchy all over. Am I suggestible or WHAT?

Soupe aux orties

For my first attempt on the soup, I treated it much as I would cress soup, with parmesan and a bit of crème fraiche. I also added slivers of fresh garlic, which complimented the sharp flavour of the nettles very well.

1 large handful of nettles (about 300 grams)
3 cloves of fresh garlic (less if it's normal dried cloves)
4 cups unsalted chicken stock (a good vegetarian stock can be substituted)
1 small onion
1 tsp fresh thyme
2 Tbs unsalted butter
creme fraiche to garnish (about 1 Tbs per bowl)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
the rind of a piece of Parmesan (optional)
salt and pepper and lemon juice to taste
Special equipment (for the faint-hearted and suggestible): a pair of rubber gloves.

Chop the onion and saute it in the butter until soft. Add the garlic and thyme just before you finish cooking the onions; if the thyme is fresh it won't need to cooked much as it's already much sweeter than normal raw garlic. While this is cooking, you can clean the nettles: don the gloves and wash them in water and then strip the leaves from the stems. Add the broth to the onion mixture and bring to a simmer. Add the nettles, cover and cook for five to seven minutes or until the nettles have wilted. Using a hand blender or a food processor, puree the soup until smooth. Add the Parmesan and the rind (if you are using one) and cook for a bit longer until the cheese melts. Taste for salt and pepper. Whether you need the salt will depend on your broth and your Parmesan, but the pepper will definitely be welcome. A squeeze of lemon juice will add a tang to the soup and bring out the flavours a bit.

Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche in each bowl and a bit of Parmesan on the side if you are so inclined. (We like Parmesan a lot.)

Even though I told the Critic before serving what the soup was made with, he finished his bowl. For him this is high praise, as he is not adventuresome, especially when it involves ingredients that are "weird"!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at May 23, 2006 2:59 PM Print-friendly version

I don't think I've ever had nettle soup. I had nettle tea once, and it was startling.

Maybe for the next Food that Fights Back you could take on an ornery lobster?

Posted by barrett on May 24, 2006 at 9:28 AM

How about a bear?

Actually, I think I'll stick to aggressive vegetables, thank you.

The boy had whole-wheat spaghetti with a tablespoon of nettle soup and a tablespoon of creamy cheese for dinner and thought it was fantastic. So I can report that it works as a pasta sauce too!

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 24, 2006 at 3:51 PM

The spores on the underside of sword fern leaves are the cure--works almost instantly. Also, the leaves are great raw. Just fold them up so only the "top" of the leaf is exposed, and then start chewing. It impresses friends. Nettles and wild sorrell are some of the best trail food in the Northwest.

Posted by Dan on May 28, 2006 at 11:20 PM
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