Though the term "nettle" could refer to any of 30 flowering plants of the Urticaceae family, the most-used variety for culinary purposes is the stinging nettle. The vitamin-packed plant is native to North America, and thrives here in the soggy Pacific Northwest where the greens are harvested in the wild.
While noted for their earthy flavor and healing properties, there’s a small factor that keeps these green beauties from being truly popular—they’re covered in hundreds of stinging hairs that deliver histamine and other chemicals to the hands, mouths, or paws of predictors (including we intrepid humans) that want to eat them.
In stores and at farmers’ markets, you’ll usually find them in opaque, waxy bags that keep the plant’s sharp hairs away from vulnerable hands. Chefs get them from local foragers who keep their wild produce hunting grounds super secret (wild greens, fiddle-head ferns, mushrooms, and truffles sell at a premium, so well-guarded foraging locations are very hush-hush).
Freshly-foraged wild nettles are popping up on menus throughout Portland in everything from pasta and pizza to soup and pesto, so embrace the sting and bring the greens into your home kitchen! Nettles taste like spinach when cooked, and are often used in soups and frittatas, ground into pesto, sautéed with butter, and brewed as tea. Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you at the dinner table—soaking or boiling nettles in water or cooking them in other liquids removes the stinging chemicals from the greens, so your mouth is certainly safe. Here, local whole foods expert Lauren Chandler of Lauren Chandler Cooks shares her recipe for a tasty and healing spring soup.
Nettle & Herb Soup
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- ½ jalapeno chili, chopped
- 1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 5 cups fumet, or 5 cups water and fish bullion*
- 10 cups of nettle leaves and stems (about ½ pound)
- 1 cup roughly chopped cilantro
- 1 cup roughly chopped mint
- ¼ cup roughly chopped tarragon
- 3 tablespoons roughly chopped marjoram or oregano
- 1 large avocado, roughly chopped
- 1 ½ pounds salmon and/or cod, cut into bite-sized cubes**
- 2 limes
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion, garlic, jalapeno, smoked paprika and white pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens, about 8 minutes. Be sure the onions do not brown.
Add the fumet or water and fish bullion and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes then stir in the nettles, herbs and avocado and turn off the heat.
Using an immersion blender, process the soup until it is smooth. Alternatively, carefully purée in batches in a traditional blender, then transfer the soup back to the pot.
Bring back to a simmer over low heat. Add the fish and poach until it is just barely done then remove from heat. The fish will continue to cook in the hot soup, so it is better to remove from the heat before it’s cooked through than to over cook it. Stir in the juice of one lime and add salt and pepper to taste. Add water if needed to thin soup to desired consistency. Serve with wedge of lime and garnish with additional avocado and a pinch of herbs.
Serve with warm tortillas!
**Use less liquid and omit seafood to turn into a delicious sauce! A high speed blender works best for a super smooth texture, but is not necessary.
*For a vegetarian version, omit the fish, swap out the fumet for veg stock or mushroom broth (I use Pacific Food Mushroom broth), and add sautéed mushrooms and cooked beans (I like garbanzo beans or dried or fresh fava beans).