Spring is an elusive season here in New England. You’ll get a 60º day, followed by days of rain, sleet, and even snow. Or Mother Nature will deliver us a handful of spring days, follow them up with a few weeks of mud season, then boom thrust into the dog days of summer. I imagine her cackling, pretending to be sorry we didn’t get more spring-like days, but really she’s not sorry one whit. Which is why it feels as if we won the weather jackpot this year.
After our youngest moved out of the house in January, my husband and I realized how much extra space we had. So we decided to bring our daughter all the things she’d been storing at our house, combine the massive drop-off with a mini family vacation, and gain even more space in our cozy home. Because let’s face it, to truly become empty nesters we needed the house to be emptied of all the kid’s stuff.
Weeks prior to our departure we swept through the house, finding stashes of books, clothes, art supplies, tools, sleeping bags, and letters our daughter had saved. Once it was all staged Shawn started to box it up. There were more than a few discussions where we wondered if all of her stuff would fit in the back of the truck. Thankfully it all fit in, like some sort of crazy 3-D puzzle. And so a few days after our 25th wedding anniversary* we took off like a herd of turtles. The back seat of the truck was stuffed high with our own travel gear, a few knitting projects for the road, some books on tape, and our dog Oliver who was happily perched high atop all these bags ensuring a proper view out the window. Just 1,623 miles to the “drop off.”
Behind us we left piles of snow and ice. Heading south it felt as if we were driving due southwest and straight into spring. When we arrived in Oklahoma City the bulbs were up, though the trees were still bare, but by the time we left it seemed as if every tree had blossomed and leafed out just so they could wave good-bye. There was a lightness to our beings for having had some wonderful family time with our offspring exploring Oklahoma City and the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge (parts of the country we’d never been to), squeezing in some visits with friends and family on our ride home, and for literally shedding hundred pounds of stuff along the way.
Once back north we had to wait a few weeks for spring to make her appearance in our little corner of Massachusetts. This past week was the shift when everything turned from brown to green, and just like that, we found ourselves in our second spring.
Only this spring isn’t like previous springs because I decided to change an old habit. Instead of trying to dig up every clump of stinging nettle I came across in our yard (typically one of my annual projects), I decided we were going to eat them instead. This new plan of attack came to me while standing in line at our local Co-Op. Waiting my turn I picked up an issue of Taproot magazine (because let’s face it flipping through magazines in the check out line is a benefit of grocery shopping – as long as you don’t have ice cream in your cart). Anyway, there was an article on stinging nettles by Rachel Wolf, which is definitely worth reading. At first I scoffed at the idea of eating stinging nettles, but as I stood there pulling items out of my cart to place on the conveyor belt I thought, “If you can’t beat them, why not join them?”
If you’ve been reading this blog you know we live on a property surrounded by woods, in the middle of nowhere. Often the wild plants from the woods like to creep up on us and take over – bittersweet, wild grapevine, blackberries, and more. One of the worst was the great sumac invasion, which we successfully eradicated a number of years ago.
Our stinging nettle situation may not been as insidious as the sumac, but I’ll never forget my first encounter with the plant. A seemingly feather light brush of my hand against the stinging nettle left me covered in welts (it was not as bad as this guy, but then I didn’t roll in the darn stuff). From the moment after my welts faded I determined to ban stinging nettles from my yard. Easier said than done, since after 25 years I still have patches of the plants moving around the lower edge of our property trying to escape me and my spade.
But 2019 was going to be different, so dressed in jeans, a long sleeve denim shirt, and leather gardening gloves I went out to harvest as much of the prickly plant as I could find.
If you look closely in the photo below you can see that the spines not only grow along the stem of the plant, but on both sides of the leaves. These spines are the perfect delivery method for nature’s painful cocktail of formic acid, serotonin, histamine, acetylcholine, and other lovelies – think fire ants and bee stings all rolled into one. There is a reason I’ve been cautious of this plant for so long, but I was armored up (so to speak), and the water would soon be boiling.
For all the years I’ve been given stinging nettles a wide berth, at the same time I’d heard herbalists and my acupuncturist singing the plant’s praises. Early 18th century settlers devoured stinging nettles as a nutritious food source in the spring, which is discussed in this video on 18th century cooking. The ascribed health benefits are myriad (please note I am not stating that eating stinging nettles will cure any of these health issues) –
- A home remedy for arthritis and joint pain
- Helps reduces seasonal allergies
- Assists in strengthening the blood
- Can lessen urinary issues
- Promote lactation
As with other foraged foods there are caveats – make sure you are harvesting leaves from a nettle plant. Only use cuttings from the spring plant to cook with, the timing of which will vary depending upon your region. I spoke with an herbalist at one of my local farmer’s market who told me if you eat foods prepared from the mature nettle plant (in this region June – fall) you can seriously harm your liver. This is truly a food meant to be consumed for a single season.
So now that you know about the plant’s defense mechanism, as well as the potential side effects if consumed out-of-season, I’m sure you want to rush out with your foraging basket! Seriously thought, if you’ve read this far you probably deserve a cup of home-brewed nettle tea, a cookie or a big bowl of stinging nettle spring soup!
The first task once you’ve harvested the nettles is to negate the stinging, which can be done with a quick boiling water bath. I was dubious, as the spines were clearly evident to my eyes even after the boiling water bath, but boiling water does seem to do the trick. Crazy as this may sound you want to save the tincture (or tea) created from this process as it is very healthy for you. The nettles only need to be immersed and stirred around in the hot water for a minute or two, then removed and wrung dry. Reserve the liquid, which will keep bottled in your fridge for up to a week.
As Shawn and I sat down to our first bowls of stinging nettle soup we marveled at whichever ancestors were brave enough to try eating a plant which stung them. Seriously, what would make you pluck it, then throw it in a pot? A sprinkle of salt, squeeze of lemon juice, and a few mouthfuls later we were past asking ourselves that question and instead wondering why had we waited so long to try nettles?
Stinging Nettle and Potato Spring Soup
1 large bunch of freshly harvested young nettle leaves and stalks (I used about two large colander worth – sorry I did not measure or weigh it)
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
4 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 – 2 quarts homemade chicken or vegetable stock
2–3 potatoes, peeled and cubed (the more potatoes you use the thicker the soup will be)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
lemon wedges for serving
1/4 cup sour cream or coconut cream, optional
In a large bowl, pour boiling water over the nettles, stir with conviction (and a wooden spoon) to de-activate the “stings” then drain, reserving the liquid for a nettle tincture. Squeeze dry the nettles in a cloth or paper towel and finely chop.
In a large pot sauté the onions in the olive oil over medium-low heat for 8-10 minutes or until starting to become translucent. Add the garlic, sautéing until fragrant 1-2 minutes, then adding the potatoes, covering with stock and cooking for 12-18 minutes.
When the potatoes are soft add the chopped nettles and adjust the seasonings.
Puree soup in a blender until smooth. It should have the consistency of vichyssoise, if it is too thick you can thin it down with more stock or some water. Conversely, you could leave the soup chunky and skip this step. It’s really about your preference of texture and how many dishes you want to wash.
Serve hot or cold. We enjoyed it with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice, though you could also add sour cream or coconut cream do amplify the creaminess. If you want to make this soup vegan substitute the vegetable stock for chicken stock and serve with coconut cream (if desired).
*Each year, before spring arrives we celebrate our wedding anniversary. Back then, and now we frequently have plenty of snow to remember the day with.