If stinging nettles grow in the Midwest, I guess I was lucky never to have had a run-in with them. The first I ever heard of stinging nettles was the summer I lived in Washington state, when I watched a girl roll up a leaf and eat it raw. I’d already had my first painful brush with them by then, so I left her to it. I went back to Wisconsin and forgot all about them until I moved to Ireland, where they’re everywhere. As much as I try to steer clear of them, I inevitably get stung a few times a year. They grow under my hedges and all around my garden beds. Taking my children for walks along our country roads is a tricky business, as I try to keep them out of the middle of the narrow roads yet away from the nettles that grow along the sides. If you ever heard me talking about nettles, it was probably with an expletive in the same sentence.
I only recently learned about cooking with nettles, and now I’m looking at them in a different light. If you pick them in early spring, when the leaves are young and tender, they taste like spinach. In her book Irish Traditional Cooking, Darina Allen writes, “With their high iron content nettles were prominent in Irish folk medicine, and helped in some small measure to alleviate hunger during the Famine.” These days, they’re a trendy ingredient sought after by chefs.
Briefly blanch them to take the sting out, then use them in all sorts of things — stir them into mashed potatoes, risotto or a homemade bread dough, make a compound butter with them or even nettle pesto. The most popular way to cook them, though, seems to be in a soup. I was a little sceptical the first time I made it — and even more tentative the first time I took a bite — but it’s surprisingly delicious. My children, who hardly ever even eat soup, licked their bowls clean and asked for seconds. This spring, instead of staying well away from nettles, I’ll be scouring the countryside, armed with my husband’s thick gardening gloves, foraging for as much as I can. The pay-off will be worth the inevitable bite.
Irish Nettle Soup
adapted from Irish Traditional Cooking by Darina Allen
Serves 4 to 6
Be sure to wear thick gardening gloves when you pick nettles so you don’t get stung. Darina Allen gives precise weights for the ingredients, but when I made the recipe and weighed my ingredients, I found that it equated to 2 medium potatoes, 1 small onion and 2 medium leeks. For a delicious alternative, substitute wild garlic for the nettles.
150 g (5 oz) young nettles
50 g (4 tablespoons) butter
275 g (10 oz) potatoes, peeled and chopped
100 g (4 oz) onion, chopped
100 g (4 oz) leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 litre (1 3/4 pints) good-quality chicken stock
125 ml (1/2 cup) cream or full-fat milk (optional)
Irish soda bread, to serve
To take the sting out of the nettles, place them in a heatproof bowl or a pot. Boil some water in the kettle, then pour it over the nettles. Allow them to sit for 30 seconds, then drain, allow to cool slightly and discard any stems. Roughly chop the leaves and set them aside.
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot, ideally one with a tight-fitting lid, over a medium heat. Add in the chopped potatoes, onions and leeks and toss them in the butter until well coated. Sprinkle generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover the pot and cook the vegetables over a gentle heat for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not coloured. Add the stock and bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender. Add the chopped nettle leaves and simmer, uncovered, for just a few minutes more. Be careful not to overcook the soup at this point or the vegetables will discolour and will also lose their flavour. Liquidize the soup, then add the cream or milk, if using — check the consistency of the soup first, as you don’t want it to be too thin — and stir it through and reheat. Alternatively, you could just add a drizzle of cream to each bowl to garnish. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary. Serve hot with thick slices of Irish soda bread.