Back in the Motherland, you won’t find a child who’s never been traumatized by stinging nettles. To quote my best friend and fellow-minskean Tony’s facebook reminiscences in response to this recent culinary obsession of mine, “I suffered greatly from these herbs as a child.” “They bring up the terrors of my childhood. Walk into them and the day is ruined.”
Indeed, those monsters grew ubiquitously — in courtyards, parks, and all over the perennial construction sites that we, kids, often preferred to proper playgrounds to engage in a thrilling cops-and-robbers chase (or, as this game is known in Russia, Cossacks-and-robbers) and to educate ourselves about the explosive properties of various materials, abundantly left unattended by permanently drunk workers. No matter how risqué our childhood activities might sound, eating stinging nettles never crossed our little communist minds. I did hear from my grandparents that during the war and other tough times people would make soup out of them but I always interpreted that as a metaphor for utter despair… Even if the stinging nettles of my youngster days didn’t grow amidst dog poop or bags of carbide and asbestos, I couldn’t imagine that draconian weed being served to anyone but the most sinful gluttons in the third circle of hell (yes, I was a well-read child).
But then, two springs ago, I saw the delicately serrated emerald leaves of young nettles greening above the dark brown soil before any other plant in or around the garden, and I remembered the nettle soup stories. I searched for recipes and found out that nettle soup was in high esteem in many European cuisines for both its nutritional value and taste.
One Scandinavian recipe seemed simple and safe enough. It involved de-stemming, soaking and boiling of the nettle leaves, and turned out quite good. Yet, I still felt a bit concerned and kept bracing for some kind of a gastrointestinal surprise for a day or two. Nothing bad happened. On the contrary, I felt strong and healthy, but this might have been a pure placebo reaction (I’m highly suggestible) to the newly adopted belief in the nettles’ tonic effect.
This year the spring was so cold that even the nettles refused to start growing until the end of April. As soon as was able to harvest the first crop I recreated that recipe from memory.
Wearing rubber gloves (this seems to be a standard legal warning for any nettle recipe on the web), I washed a bunch of nettles, discarding the thicker parts of the stalks, and blanched them in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Immediately after draining, I submerged them in ice water to preserve the color. (It’s widely suggested that one keeps the blanching water to use as a hair rinse. I tested it on myself, and my hair did not fall out.)
As the blanching was going on, I cooked some peeled and cubed potatoes (2), parsnip (1), diced onion (1) and oats (1/2 cup) in water, adding some “Better Than Bouillon” concentrated vegetable stock. When all the vegetables were soft (about 15-20 minutes), I added the blanched nettles, 1-2 spoons of olive oil, turned off the heat, and blended everything using an immersion hand blender. Added some pepper, tasted, adjusted salt — and that was it, green and delightful.
I garnished it with some thinly sliced ramp greens (turns out it’s too tough when raw — I should have cooked them or used chives instead) and a few drops of truffle oil. Sour cream or creme fraiche would also be a great accompaniment.
TO BE CONTINUED…