How often do you get to cook with a hostile ingredient? Sure, you could hurt yourself with pretty much anything — drop a head of celeriac on your toes, rub your eyes after chopping chili peppers, stab yourself with a carrot — but nettle leaves are actively belligerent. Stinging you is their life calling, it is what they were meant to do, and you can hardly blame them. Wolves will be wolves, nettles will be nettles.
And so it is with extreme caution that I handled the bunch I got from the market on Saturday morning. The lady who sold it to me said that holding your breath lessened the effect, but I find breathing to be a pleasurable activity and I am reluctant to give it up, so I opted for the pink rubber glove strategy instead. I did follow her advice of storing the bunch in a glass of water in the fridge door, but I covered it with a brown paper bag on which I wrote “Attention: Orties!”, in case an innocent victim opened the refrigerator before I had time to use the nettles.
Since this was my first time cooking, or even tasting, anything nettle, I decided to make a very simple soup, figuring it was the best way to discover the flavors, unadorned and unmasked. As the soup gently brewed, I was very surprised by the smells wafting up from the pot: I was expecting spinach, but it was seaweed I smelled, like a Brittany beach at low tide. (Not all that puzzling perhaps, since stinging nettle is a weed too, albeit an earthy one.)
We had this deep green, velvety soup for lunch, and the marine impression was confirmed: if you closed your eyes you could imagine yourself sipping on a soupe de poisson — fishy in a pleasant way, and mildly iodized. We liked it very much, and reflected that it would do well with a bit of rouille stirred in: rouille* is a sauce of garlic and chili peppers mashed with olive oil and crustless bread (or simply a garlic and chili pepper mayonnaise), traditionally served with fish soups and bouillabaisse in Provence.
This was quite a flavor encounter, and it makes me wish I had a garden that I could neglect, so stinging nettles would thrive in the back. Since I don’t, I had to buy mine, but if you want to pick your own, here’s what I’ve read: you should avoid nettles that grow too close to a road, you should pick the tops of young plants only (older ones are tough and bitter, poor things), and you should rinse them well. Oh, and they’re very good for you, too, full of vitamins and minerals and stuff.
* Literally: “rust”, because of the color.
Soupe aux Orties
– A dab of butter
– One medium onion, peeled and sliced
– Two small potatoes for mashing (or one large), peeled and sliced
– 1/2 teaspoon salt
– One bunch of young stinging nettles
– Freshly ground pepper
Melt the butter in a medium soup pot over medium heat. Add in the onion, and cook for five minutes, until softened, stirring regularly to avoid coloring. Add in the potatoes and salt, and pour cold water or stock to cover by about an inch. Cover with a lid, bring to a simmer, and cook for ten minutes, or until the potatoes are soft (test this with the tip of a knife).
In the meantime, put on your best-looking rubber gloves (I don’t usually wear any and could only find two left-hand pink gloves, but that worked okay — my right thumb was a teeny bit uncomfortable, but he’ll live) pluck the nettle leaves from the tough, fibrous stems (discard the stems). Rinse the leaves in cold water thoroughly.
When the potatoes are cooked, add in the nettles, and cook for five more minutes, until the leaves are soft and wilted. Purée with an immersion blender (or in batches in a blender). Grind in some pepper, taste, and adjust the seasoning.