Nettles are trendy. A bag weighing less than a pound costs about $4 at the farmers’ market. And they’re a dirty roadside weed. It takes maybe 5 minutes to pick a pound, less probably for a “professional” nettle forager, they’re common as grass, and you don’t even have to leave the city limits to find a patch. Yet people gladly line up at the farmers’ market and pay good money for them. But why pick on the farmers’ market? Those people sell a necessity. Nettles are also marketed in pill form, and people buy dried powdered weeds in softgel caplets.
Weeds are trendy. New Seasons and other high-end groceries market dandelion greens. I can think of little more useless than the twist tie that holds together a bunch of dandelion greens. Not to mention the agricultural space expended to grow dandelions. Here in my house, we eat dandelions. Prepared in the manner of my German forbears, tossed with hot bacon fat, apple cider vinegar, sugar, onions and salt. Despite the bacon, they still need a little salt.
We don’t buy them, we pull them out of the garden so as to make room for cultivated plants that, truth be told, are considerably more delicious. As you can well imagine, we don’t buy our nettles either. Those, we make into soup. Leona wants us to put them to other, more imaginative, uses but I only like them as soup. A gratin might work, and my brother makes nettle pesto which, as he has informed me, is called pesto d’ortica and is an Italian classic and is delicious. But, as an American, soup is what you’re supposed to make with them. Apparently, a soup of nettles is a traditional spring restorative, the winter having been relatively free of fresh vegetables and nettles being one of the very first plants to brave the lasts frosts of spring. They are also incredibly nutritious. The sting of nettles is supposed to have evolved because the plant is so nutrient dense, without it, foraging animals would have foraged it away long ago.
The way to make nettle soup is to bring a quantity of heavily salted water to the boil and blanch the greens in it. Heavily means like seawater or brine. Almost too salty to like. After blanching they lose their sting. Sauteé some onions (a lot, always a lot of onions) and some garlic with a few bay leaves in a heavy pot until they’re done then add the blanched nettles and sauteé them too. Sauteé it until it looks good enough to eat all by itself, then add chicken stock. The stock should of course be homemade and good, if it’s not, you’re on your own. Add a dash of cayenne, not enough to make it spicy, this isn’t Indian food, just enough to add the fruit. Simmer this mess briefly, maybe twenty minutes, then pureé with an immersion blender if at all possible. Lacking an immersion blender, immediately postpone dinner while you run to sur la table to purchase one. Season the soup with salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve forth with finely sliced chives and, if you like, a dollop of creme fraîche. If, after all the trouble you’ve gone through making stock and picking nettles, you purchase creme fraîche, you will be very disappointed in yourself, and I will share in your disapointment.
Claytonia siberica is another good weed. Maybe it’s the best weed. Occasionally it can be found at fancy restaurants in our area as a garnish or a little side salad. It’s also known as miner’s lettuce and is sweet and succulent. It’ll probably be at New Seasons pretty soon. I dress it lightly with vinaigrette of white wine vinegar and/or lemon, much more destroys its subtle tenderness. And I salt them. Of course they get salted.
Salt and wild vegetables are as inseparable to cuisine sauvage as balsamic vinegar is to the mesclun at the table of the yuppie neophyte. Salt tames the weediness. It extracts the muddiness. According to my brother, even Pacific Northwestern fiddleheads are edible if they’re blanched in properly salted water. To me, they taste of the swampy mud they rise from.
To the professional, this comes as no surprise. Restaurant kitchens go through enormous quantities of salt. Green vegetables need salt and lots of it. Pasta needs salt. Potatoes need salt. Meat, Fish, Poultry, Butter, Mushrooms need salt. Many food writers, the type that write for the food day weekly section in the newspaper, like to point to the importance of salt in whatever little class of food they’ve been assigned to that week, “Most people are afraid of cooking fish, but fish just needs a little salt and a lot of love”, or equivalent drivel. But this is different. Wild greens are almost completely unpalatable without sufficient salt. Not not just salt at any time, salt at the right time. If your nettle blanching water is under-seasoned, you will never rid your soup of the flavors of dirt and weeds. Likewise, dandelions need previously salted meat, then a little more to be delicious.
Don’t buy weeds, frugality is trendy. Save your money for salt, whose virtues are timeless.