“It was a brave man,” said Jonathan Swift, “who first ate an oyster.” There are other culinary conundrums that come to mind when it comes to food which is disgusting or downright lethal without proper preparation, such as:
How did we know wheat would be good to eat if we dried it, husked it, ground it, mixed it with water and baked it? Otherwise it’s just grass.
Fugu (pufferfish) is a delicacy but if improperly prepared is lethal. How many test subjects did chefs go through to find out how to properly prepare it?
Cassava or manioc is a major food staple in much of the world, but before eating it must be dried, ground into flour, soaked for 24 hours, dried again, then toasted, otherwise you may as well just swallow a cyanide capsule. Who found this out?
Who first looked at a Twinkie and said, “you know, I bet I could deep fry that?”
Why did anyone ever eat a nettle?
The theme of this post is glorious, glorious spring. Spring is here! Green things are erupting from the earth and Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” is running through my head. The farmer’s market is open, and big bags of new nettles are for sale for the only time in the year.
Nettles have been a food since at least the bronze age. We know this because in 2011 in the Cambridgeshire fens an archaeological dig uncovered a bunch of canoes, swords and baskets dating from 1000BC, perfectly preserved by the peat. Inside one of the canoes was a bowl with the spoon still in it, and inside the bowl was nettle soup. (One does have to wonder, however, what happened to the people who suddenly ran away from their canoes, swords and baskets and half-eaten lunch, leaving them behind long enough to be buried with layers of peat. History is weird sometimes.)
In Sweden, nettles are eaten to celebrate spring’s arrival, in a soup with minimum extra ingredients to emphasize the sheer popping spring-ness of the nettles. Traditionally, the nettles are boiled to remove the sting, chopped up with other weeds such as chervil and fennel, and returned to the boiling water with onions and salt. This is eaten with eggs. Note that this recipe includes nothing which wasn’t commonly available in the bronze age in Europe: weeds, onions, salt water, and eggs. It’s also very good, but I have taken the liberty of including pepper which wasn’t available in the bronze age unless you happened to be in Asia, and omitting the eggs, because I had eggs for breakfast.
Nettle Soup for Spring
1 bag fresh nettles
Enough salty water to boil the nettles and no more
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon flour
A few sprigs parsley
freshly ground pepper
First of all, you must cope with the terror that is nettles. If you go out picking them, wear gloves. If you are a coward like me and buy them in a bag at the Farmer’s Market, carry them home gingerly at arm’s length making sure not a single leaf brushes near any part of the flimsy plastic wall separating your hand from the Weed That Bites. Put them down on the counter and watch for a while to make sure they don’t make any sudden moves, then bring some water to boil.
How much water? Well, the point of this dish is to taste the nettles, so no more water than you will need to make the eventual soup. For me, this was about 6 cups in a large stock pot for a plastic bag full of nettles. If you use more, you will end up throwing away water, which means throwing away flavor. So use just enough to blanch them and make the stock afterwards. The nettles will shrink when boiling, like spinach.
When the water is at a killing boil, throw in the nettles stems and all (using tongs or upending the bag) and laugh maniacally as the stinging hairs loaded with acetylocholine, histamine and formic acid are neutralized, rendering the leaves helpless to your devilish plans. Let them boil for three minutes. Envision your throat swelling closed after you sample your first spoonful of soup and let them boil a couple of minutes more. When you are feeling brave, drain the nettles (preserving the cooking liquid) and shock the leaves in ice water. This is called blanching and it preserves the color, which is at least half the reason to cook with such a malevolent ingredient.
You will see in the picture that the water the nettles have been cooked in (left) appears deep brown. It is not. It is in fact, as you will see if you let some dribble from a ladle, lovely deep green. Green so deep the green-receptors in your eyes fail and you can only perceive brown. Or something. And the smell! Here is the scent of spring! A combination of newly mown grass, fresh horse dung (you know you like it, admit it), open fields, hedgerows, soft rain falling on rustic church steeples in Scandinavian villages, etc. You only have to smell it to know spring has truly arrived and the green things are returning. (Before you use this water for stock, however, pour it off slowly into another container, leaving the grit in the first. Nothing ruins a good refined soup like the crunch of grit between the teeth.)
Squeeze out water from the nettles (no gloves required, just your hands. Come on. Do it.) and chop them to prevent long stringy fibers clotting your soup. Chop up some parsley too, while you are at it – this is a herb soup, so you can add chervil or chives or anything green. Just don’t overdo it – it’s all about the nettles.
Heat up a lump of butter. Chop up half an onion and two cloves garlic. Sautee the onion and garlic until they are soft but not browning. Throw in the nettles and sprinkle with a tablespoon of flour. Stir well and add a few ladles of your nettle stock, until you reach a nice runny consistency.
Blend it as smooth as you like – I think the smoother, the better. Reheat it with a splash of milk. Sprinkle it with pepper, eat it, and be grateful. Spring.