There are some foodstuffs that make you wonder about the mental state of the first person who ever tried to eat them. Blue cheese. Lobster. Green Jell-O.*
And then there are foodstuffs that make you wonder about the mental state of the first person who ever tried to eat them - and then give up, because they must have been hungrier or crazier than you could possibly understand. Like cassava. Or blowfish (fugu.) Or stinging nettles.
When I say "stinging nettle," you might think "backyard nuisance." If your childhood was rich in fairy tales, you might think of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans." If you're botanically disinclined, you may think I'm referring to some variety of insect. (No, those are bluebottles.)
You probably won't think of soup.
But somewhere, somehow, someone figured out that those plants that hurt when you touch them actually taste pretty good when you pick them young and boil them up.** Nettle soup is a lot like spinach soup, but with a fresher, greener taste. Nettles are also rich in iron and calcium, so you get a nutritional payoff in exchange for the trouble of having to handle them with rubber gloves.
If you live in Europe or North America, you can probably go foraging for nettles yourself. If you're not that adventurous, however, you might be able to find them at a farmer's market (I bought mine from a stand at Copley Square). You may have to wait until next year, though, because we're at the close of the season, which starts in early spring.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go sharpen my boning knife. I liberated a blowfish from the Boston Aquarium the other day, and it needs to be filleted.
(The following photo was taken with Bella's camera phone, which is why the colors are a little odd. It didn't really look like a Monet waterlily painting.)
Nettle Soup with Crème Fraîche and Chive Blossoms
Serve this soup hot as a first course at dinner, or chilled with a side of bread and butter for a light lunch.
(Serves one, with leftovers.)
Heat a generous knob of butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Chop a small white onion very finely and add it to the pan. Season with a dash of nutmeg, and cook until the onion is soft and translucent.
Add four cups of chicken or vegetable stock and half a cup of cooked white rice. Bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, put on a pair of thick rubber gloves. Give your bunch of nettles a quick rinse under warm water to get rid of any dirt, and pick all the leaves off the stems. Add the nettle leaves to the pan.
When the leaves have softened and wilted, bring the heat down to a steady simmer and cook, uncovered, for fifteen to twenty minutes. Remove the pan from heat.
Allow the mixture to cool, then blend the soup in batches in a food processor, or use an immersion blender. Return the soup to the saucepan and reheat. Salt to taste. Ladle into bowls.
Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of chive blossoms.
*Maybe it's just me, but I'm convinced that nothing edible should be quite that color.
**Nettles, despite their nutritious qualities, are an ingredient that hasn't caught on with the "raw food" movement.