A wise man once said it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I thought about the merits of this argument as I skulked around the patch, keeping a lookout for any joggers, dog-walkers, or other unsuspecting law-abiders. This was city property, after all, and though my quarry was generally classified as a weed—and a belligerent one at that—I wasn’t relishing an opportunity to explain my quest for local superfoods to the authorities. A couple power-walkers chugged by and then a birdwatcher, who failed to notice a pileated woodpecker hammering on a snag right above our heads. Now the coast was, as they say, clear. I pulled on my rubber gloves, got down in the dirt, and drew my kitchen shears. Stinging nettle soup was on the menu…
It didn’t take long before a nettle caught me in an unguarded moment. The sleeve of my shirt had inched up enough above my glove to reveal an isthmus of vulnerable skin at the wrist. Ouch! The sting, while not nearly as painful as a yellowjacket or fire ant, works on similar principles: tiny hairs deliver a jolt of formic acid and histamine. Unlike a bee sting, though, a brush with nettles tends to linger for several hours. But then, never did a plant hurt so good. Nettles are one of the most nutritious greens on the planet. This may seem paradoxical until you consider that a tasty elixir of spring must have appealed immensely to animals stirring awake from winter slumbers, and so the nettle has evolved a formidable defense. As with mushrooms, you have to wonder about the process of trial-and-error that took place before humans learned how to safely gather and eat nettles. Turns out, cooked or dried they lose their sting.
Foraging for stinging nettles has the added bonus pleasure of getting one outside and into the early spring woodlands. The chorus of birdsong, to name one of my favorite signs of the season, has picked up dramatically in the last week. Sure, the robins—those over-achievers of the avian world—have been singing since late January. But as I arrived at my patch I heard roving bands of pine siskins chittering in the treetops. A mixed flock of kinglets, chickadees, and nuthatches gossiped lower in the canopy. The high-pitched bragging of brown creepers (“see-see-look-at-me”) rang out through the woods. Indian plums were just leafing out, with a few brave rosettes testing the air, and the first bright green leaves of spring wildflowers were unfurling out of the duff. All of this potent reawakening is part of the nettle.
Stinging Nettle Soup
4 tbsp butter
1 medium Walla Walla Sweet, or yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut up
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1 large bunch stinging nettles
nutmeg or other spices
salt and pepper to taste
Saute the onions in butter until near caramelized. Add the garlic and potatoes and cook over medium heat several minutes. Spice to taste. Add stock and water and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add nettles, stir, and cover. Cook 10 minutes on a low boil. Puree in blender, food mill, or processor, then return to pot. Add stock or cream if necessary; check seasoning. Serve with heavy cream.
The finished soup will be sweetened by the caramelized onion and thickened by the potato, but the real treat is the vernal shot of nettle. Reminiscent of spinach though wilder, nettles have a fresh, peppery zing that evokes the moist woodlands of their home. Later in the spring, when the days are warmer, you can omit the potatoes/cream and skip the puree step to simply enjoy a refreshing soup of chopped nettles. There are few foods better for you—or tastier