If ever there was an easy plant to forage in France it’s [stinging] nettles. They are EVERYWHERE—and often where you don’t want them to be, like just under a flowering apple tree that otherwise seemed such a perfect spot for a spring picnic. Perfect, that is, until you (well, I) sat smack in the middle of them and spent the rest of the day clawing at my itchy, sore legs.
But back to foraging. It is impossible to mistake nettles for anything else, either (the apple tree incident occurred before I knew what they were; stinging nettles do not grow in the Eastern United States), so gathering them is merely a matter of wearing an old pair of kitchen gloves while picking young, tender leaves from the tops of the stalks. Most patches of nettles will yield far more than you need.
Nettles’ flavor is green, earthy, and haunting, like the richest-tasting spinach or Swiss chard you could ever imagine with a hint of something else. (I’ve read a description of nettles’ flavor as a cross between spinach and cucumber, but I don’t really get the cucumber.) I crave that flavor in spring, the way I crave the first garden tomatoes come July. From the moment when the hedgerows around Cancale start to turn green till mid-to-late May, I head up the cliff to a well shaded patch of nettles that has zero risk of contamination from fertilizers or weed killers. I pluck off the top of the stem with a few leaves, and stuff them into a paper bag. Unwashed, those nettle leaves will keep at least a week in the fridge. I’ve thought of freezing nettles for future use, but somehow know they will lose their appeal once they’re crowded out of my cooking by all the other wonderful produce of spring and summer.
The best, easiest recipe to make with nettles is a basic potage, (blended soup). It’s a detox classic among crunchy-granola types, but what I like about it is that it lets the wild green flavor really shine. Swirl in a little crème fraiche and it’s simply divine.
Because nettles aren’t as easy to come by in North America as they are in France, I tried this recipe with another abundant spring green: radish leaves. The flavor is more like watercress (not a bad thing) but still has that rich, earthy, tannic flavor that needs little or no adornment.
Nettle (or Bitter Green) Soup
This soup can be made with nettles, radish tops, watercress or even arugula—it’s a great way to use up wilted bitter salad greens—and served hot or cold (like a vichyssoise). Garnish with small edible flowers (like the wild rapeseed petals, shown in the photo), if desired.
1 Tbs. butter or olive oil
1 medium leek, white part only, quartered and cut into small pieces
3 cups tender stinging nettle leaves or radish top leaves
1 clove garlic, minced (1 tsp.)
1 medium Russet, Idaho, or Yukon Gold potato, peeled and diced (10 oz.)
1 large sprig fresh thyme
4 cups water
Heat the butter or olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the leek, and sauté 3 to 4 minutes, or until the leek is softened. Stir in the nettle or radish top leaves, and cook 3 to 4 minutes, or until the leaves are wilted and have turned a dark green (like spinach or other leafy greens). Stir in the garlic, then add the potato, thyme, and water. Season with 1 heaping tsp. of coarse sea salt or ½ tsp. fine salt or kosher salt. Cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer the soup 20 minutes.
Remove the thyme sprigs, and blend the soup until smooth. Adjust the seasonings, and serve as is, or with a little cream or crème fraîche, hot or cold. Makes 4 cups