While out on my foraging expedition at the end of April (which netted me so much wild garlic we’re still eating the same batch now), my husband happened to point out the stinging nettles growing nearby. Most people give nettles a good wide berth–and for good reason: those itty bitty stingers hurt like hell and they sting for hours–but the thing is, nettles are incredibly good for you. They’re super high in iron–think spinach on steroids–as well as protein, calcium, and vitamins and they’re said to help with skin conditions such as eczema and can allegedly make your hair brighter, thicker, and shinier. The leaves, which are best in the early spring, can be brewed into a tea or tossed into quiches or frittatas or sauteed up like other leafy greens.
Since it’s still a bit chilly, I opted for a nettle soup, rounding it out with some celeriac, which I thought, flavour-wise, would pair nicely with the nettles. Celeriac is a big, knobby root that has a sweet, subtly celery-like flavour. Nettles, to me, have a rather delicate taste as well, so I wanted something that wouldn’t overwhelm them. I turned out to be right: the soup is delicious. It’s also good for feeding the blood and keeping your strength up, and can easily be adapted for vegetarian/vegan diets.
Nettles aren’t something you can generally find at your supermarket; you’re going to have to go out and collect them yourself. Fortunately, they’re pretty easy to find, being a weed and all. You probably have a few sprouting up in your back garden! The easiest way to tell what they are, of course, is by the sting, but you’re not going to want to use that as a test. Look for a plant with jagged-edged, somewhat heart-shaped leaves covered with tiny stingers (these also appear on the stem). The stem is hollow and square-shaped. Nettles are usually found in fairly rich, moist soils, in woodlands or near water (I found mine near the Waters of Leith). Try to find some a little off the beaten path, where dogs are less likely to have wandered!
Put on a pair of gardening or thick rubber gloves and keep any exposed skin well away from the plant. Pick the topmost leaves, which will be the most tender.
Once you’re home, give the leaves a good wash (again, wearing gloves) and put them in a heatproof bowl. Pour over some boiling water from the kettle and leave for about 5 minutes. This will neutralise the sting.
Nettle and Celeriac Soup
About 300 g nettles
1 small or 1/2 medium celeriac (about 220 g), peeled and diced
1 small onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
a few sprigs thyme
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
salt and pepper
plain yogurt, to serve
This soup can go two ways: you can either leave it chunky (in which case, chop up your garlic), or it can be pureed. I prefer pureed, which has the added benefit of making it less important to make the veggies look pretty. If you’re going to puree it, no need to be dainty with your chopping, just try to get the carrots and celeriac to be roughly the same size so they cook evenly.
Heat some oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, garlic, and celeriac and saute for about 5-7 minutes, until the onion is creamy coloured and the other veg have a bit of colour on them. Add the stock, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the vegetables are all tender.
Add the thyme and nettles and simmer for another 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Once cooled, puree the soup in a blender or food processor or with an immersion blender until smooth. Season to taste. Serve warm or cold, with a bit of yogurt swirled in.