A typical conversation I might have with my mom would go something like this, “Why don’t you make (cook) things that are more mainstream, use ingredients that people are more familiar with?”
My answer, “I guess, because, in my little corner of the web, I aspire to get people to step out of their comfort zone. To introduce people to ingredients that might be new and unfamiliar. To embrace the unknown, instead of shying away from it.”
There was a time, not that long ago, when I had no idea what a stinging nettle was. Had never heard of it, seen one, or had any clue as to what it tasted like? How will you ever know what something tastes like, unless you try it? So, when I stumbled upon stinging nettles a few years back at the farmers’ market (from a woman who has since become one of my favorite farmers — the nettles grow wild on her property), I was curious.
Nettles happen to be abundant throughout much of the world, including the United States and Canada, so they’re not as uncommon as you might think. In fact, they’ve been used since ancient times, as food and for their medicinal properties. Although you might not find this weed in your mainstream grocery store, keep your eyes open for them at your local farmers’ market. Nettles grow wild, so you might even encounter them where you live (of course, make sure you know what you’re looking for).
Nettles taste a bit like spinach, albeit with a more herbaceous quality. Thought about different ways to use the nettles, but in the end, I think the simplicity of a soup is the best way to get the most out of the nettle, to enjoy its subtle, green, distinct earthy notes. This ramped up soup incorporates leek and potato, with the addition of stinging nettles and, well, ramps (aka wild leeks; ’tis the season). In lieu of ramps, you could just as easily use a greater proportion of leeks or onion.
The final product is a beautiful, vibrant shade of green. It’s light and springy. To me, this soup is the epitome of spring in a bowl.
Be careful when handling stinging nettles, as their leaves and stems have stinging hairs (aka trichomes) that cause a painful stinging sensation when they come into contact with your skin. Cooking nettles (a quick blanch is all they need) deactivates their sting and makes them safe to handle and to eat.
Good to the last drop…
Nettle and Leek Soup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups potatoes (used mostly Yukon with a few purple potatoes), chopped
1 medium leek, washed well, chopped
1 bunch *ramps (about 12-15 ramps), bulbs and leaves separated
handful of chives (about a cup loosely packed), plus extra for garnish
4 cups good quality chicken stock (or vegetables stock)
8 ounces of nettles, blanched, remove tough stems and discard
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
A drizzle of cream (if you like)
Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the potatoes, leeks, and ramp bulbs, and toss them in the butter. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and sweat the vegetables over medium-low heat for ~8 minutes until soft and translucent (make sure they don’t brown). Add the ramp leaves and chives, and saute another minute or two. Add the stock, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 8-10 minutes. Add the nettles and simmer another 2-3 minutes.
Blend in a high speed blender until very smooth. Taste and re-season.
Serve with brown, crusty bread, a drizzle of cream, and chopped chives.
*substitute white onion, green garlic, and/or leek in lieu of the ramps.