Ripe For Picking
We know the Bard posed the enduring question “What’s in a name?” and for the herbaceous Urtica dioica or the stinging nettle, a name is everything. This densely nutritious weed comes by its name because its leaves and stems are covered in miniscule poisonous hairs that burn the skin when touched. While this verdant yet venomous plant may not seem like something you’d want to eat, stinging nettles are quickly becoming the darling ingredient of some chefs.
Earthy and full of flavor, nettles lose their stinging power once they are cooked. You can find them this time of year when the leaves are young and tender at your local farmers’ market or specialty grocery store. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even forage for the weed yourself, as it can be found in the wild across the United States and in abundance in the South. Stinging nettles grow near shady spots and are relatively easy to identify: the deep green leaves are heart-shaped with jagged teeth, somewhat resembling a mint leaf. Be sure to handle the raw plant with gloves and wear long pants as you search for nettles in the wild.
Regardless of how you acquire stinging nettle, the possibilities are endless once you’ve brought it into the kitchen. With a similar grassy flavor to spinach and asparagus, stinging nettles can be substituted for any recipe that calls for a leafy green. Add it to lasagna, pesto or quiche to impart a bright, springtime punch. As a bonus, the stinging nettle packs an impressive nutritional profile, bursting with vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, Vitamin C and even protein.
Ed Matthews, owner and executive chef of One Block West in Winchester, Virginia, loves incorporating this often-misunderstood plant into his cooking, making him somewhat of a local expert. Chef Matthews, a connoisseur of local, foraged ingredients, recommends consuming nettles when they are young. He adds, “The older the plants get, the tougher they get, just like most plants. Early spring is their season. To my knowledge, there is nothing else that looks like nettles that grows at the same time and in the same location. In other words, they’re hard to mistake. The hairy stems with the spines are a dead giveaway. When foraging, avoid orchards, golf courses and other areas that may have been sprayed with chemicals.”
Here, he shares one of his favorite recipes for a creamy, hearty soup made with nettles.
Cream of Stinging Nettle Soup
2 tablespoons sweet butter
2 large shallots, minced
1 pound cleaned nettle leaves
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups heavy cream
Salt and white pepper to taste
Sweat the shallots and butter in the bottom of a soup pan until the shallots are translucent. Add the nettles and wilt. Add the stock and simmer until the nettles are tender. Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth. Strain the blended soup into a clean soup pan. Add the cream to the soup, rewarm and season to taste.
Add spinach, asparagus or sweet peas to the nettles.
Use mushroom stock and garnish the finished soup with sautéed mushrooms.
For a thicker soup, add a handful of rice, tapioca, cream of wheat, white grits or diced potato while cooking the nettles.