Once stinging nettle was native to Europe. Now it is found all over the world. The plant goes back to ancient times as a medicinal herb and is full of history and lore. Surprisingly nutritious, it's presence is also an indicator of good, fertile soils.
But beware -- you must wear gloves when foraging and harvesting this plant, as stinging nettle is very aptly named. Contact with skin will result in burning, itchy bumps that take some time to heal. Once cooked, the stinging is rendered inert and the plant cannot harm you.
Stinging nettle has many uses, medicinal and culinary, here I make a stinging nettle soup that combines the spinach-like flavour of the nettle with pancetta (or bacon), potato, roasted and fresh garlic, as well as shallots.
This is a simple recipe that you can adapt to whatever you have on hand.
Stinging Nettle Soup is my Soup of The Week.
Foraging For Stinging Nettle
First of all -- wear gloves and protective clothing. Luckily stinging nettle is a prodigious and hearty plant that is easily identified. In Toronto and the rest of Southern Ontario, I can find it in city parks, ravines, and most woods. It's everywhere. And you don't have to worry about over-harvesting this plant, so pick to your heart's content.
The tender new leaves are ideal.
Be smart when foraging: Bring a guide book or person who knows what they are doing. If you doubt the identification, skip it.
Nutrition & Ancient Medicine
High in carotenoids, dried stinging nettle can turn the yolks of laying hens a deeper orange colour. Although carotenoids must be converted to Retinol first to be of use to humans, it is nonetheless a good source of this form of Vitamin A. By weight, the stinging nettle is higher in protein than many greens.
From ancient times, the fresh Stinging nettle is used for flailing arthritic or paralytic limbs with fresh Stinging nettle to stimulate circulation and bring warmth to joints and extremities in a treatment known as “urtication." Ancient Egyptians also reportedly used the infusion for the relief of arthritis and lumbago. The above mentioned practice of urtication or rubefaction became a standard in folk medicine as a remedy for arthritis, rheumatism, and muscular paralysis and is perhaps the most ancient medicinal use of Stinging nettle.
Blanch for 30 seconds in boiling salted water, then freeze. Or hang to dry and use for tea. Stinging nettle is best fresh in my opinion, but blanching preserves it beautifully to enjoy throughout the year if you have space.
Dried nettle tea with mint and honey is a soothing drink.
Stinging nettle soup is a common recipe, especially in Eastern Europe. You can use spinach or chard in place of the nettle in this recipe. The pancetta (or bacon) and potatoes add a heartiness to this soup that makes it fit for a light dinner. The flavours of garlic and shallots perfectly compliment the nettle. If you don't have shallots, an ordinary onion will work as well.
As long as you have stock prepared (as I always do) this soup comes together very quickly.
Once cooked, nettles lose their sting. To prepare the nettle for cooking, pick the leaves from the stems, and rinse both in cool water.
Save the leaves for the end of the soup to maintain a bright green colour. The stems can be used from the beginning.
Wild Edibles: Stinging Nettle Soup
A traditional soup of stinging nettle and aromatics. You can even omit the pancetta and still have a wonderful, hearty soup.
- About 8 cups of stinging nettle, leaves and stems separated into two piles
- 1 litre of stock (I recommend chicken, but vegetable or beef works too)
- 2 large potatoes (yellow or Yukon gold), diced
- 3 shallots, diced, or 1 onion
- 1 cup diced pancetta (or 4 strips bacon)
- 4 cloves fresh garlic
- 1 tablespoon roasted garlic
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts
- 2 tablespoons of either Olive oil/lard/ghee
- Red pepper flakes
- Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- Separate your stinging nettle into stems and leaves.
- In a heavy-bottomed pot or French oven on medium heat, slowly render your pancetta, allowing most of the fat to melt.
- Add your cooking fat of choice (olive oil/lard/ghee) and the shallots.
- Once the shallots turn translucent, add the diced potatoes and a pinch of salt, cook until starting to crisp. Do not let the shallots burn.
- Add the fresh garlic and allow it to become fragrant, about 60 seconds.
- Add the roasted garlic, chopped walnuts, red pepper flakes (to taste), and chopped stinging nettle stems. Continue to cook, stirring, for another minute or two.
- Add your stock, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a quiet simmer anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes until the potatoes and nettle stems are completely soft.
- Add your stinging nettle leaves, cook for 2-3 minutes until wilted, and then remove from heat.
- With an immersion blender, puree the soup to your desired consistency. I prefer it more rustic with the stinging nettle leaves still being obvious in the finished product.
- Adjust for salt to taste and add freshly cracked pepper.
To serve: add a drizzle of (optional) walnut oil and more fresh pepper.