Tiny green shoots pushing out of the ground, braving the bare cold of early spring days, are our first clues that the land is awakening. Their emergence coincides with our own: our coming out after cozy months spent mostly indoors putting energy into our roots. Now it’s time to show up in the world again.
Some early greens and shoots have long since established their place at the table, and are sought out by foodies everywhere: asparagus, garlic scapes and pea shoots from the garden, and fiddleheads and ramps from the secret foraging spots of wild food enthusiasts.
But tucked away in the corners of your backyard, maybe even overtaking your garden beds, are seemingly humble edible spring greens that some call “weeds”. Stinging nettle, garlic mustard, chickweed, onion grass, purple deadnettle, wood sorrel, dandelion, and lambsquarters are some of the best known of them.
The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a staple in my spring kitchen. I learned to forage for nettles back in my native Finland. When I moved to the United States, it was one of the familiar plants I still recognized. Later, I learned to use it not only for food, but also medicine, dye, and fiber.
To harvest nettles, wear protective gloves (a pair of gardening gloves work well) and long sleeves. Using scissors, cut the top 4 inches straight into a bag or a basket. Only harvest young nettles that haven’t yet gone to seed.
Once back in your kitchen, separate the leaves from the stalks, and blanch in simmering water until wilted, up to 5 minutes.
That’s it! Now you have cooked greens you can use in any number of ways. They do not sting anymore at this point.
Stinging nettles, once blanched, are mild and remarkably spinach-like, making a perfect pairing for something rich and satisfying such as cheeses or potatoes. Here’s a full-flavored nettle soup that achieves just that.
If you find that you’re still hungry for more, try my nettle feta quiche recipe!
Nettle Soup Recipe
- 5-6 liters of fresh nettle tops (about half a large shopping bag)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 small onion or 2-3 shallots, chopped
- ½ stalk of celery
- 3 medium yellow potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 4 cups stock of your choice
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- 1 tsp dried thyme, or a couple of sprigs fresh thyme
- ½ cup heavy cream
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- a dollop of sour cream
- fresh chives
Wash the nettles in a colander. Using protective gloves, cut leaves off of stems into a large stockpot with 2 inches of water. Bring water to a boil and blanch the nettle leaves under a lid for 3 minutes. Drain in a colander. You should end up with 3-4 cups of blanched nettles. When cooled, chop them up.
In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat up the olive oil and butter. Add onions and celery and sauté for 5 minutes, until softened. Add potatoes, stock, bay leaf, nutmeg, thyme, and salt. Bring to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add nettles to pot and enough water to cover them. Simmer for another 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Remove the bay leaf. Purée the soup with an immersion blender, or in batches in a food processor or blender. Add lemon juice, black pepper, and cream. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and some chopped fresh chives.