Nettle Soup

From time to time people come into the restaurant trying to sell me unusual herbs they have picked.... something I tend not to be very enthusiastic about, preferring to telephone my greengrocer. A number of chefs, like Michel Bras, make a point of incorporating wild plants into their cuisine and are often photographed out gathering nature's bounty from fields and hedgerows, usually in dazzling whites (perhaps to prevent hunters shooting them by mistake).

One wild plant of which I am inordinately fond is the first young nettle of spring dazzlingly green and with a unique peppery flavour. I am not sure I like the idea of London nettles, which may already have been inspected by dogs in a way that does not stunt their growth but certainly puts me off.

This soup is actually from a Swedish recipe, in which country its consumption with soft poached quails' eggs is a rite of spring, conjuring up images of Bergman movies and beautiful Nordic types gathered sexily around the table. I had had various stabs at making this dish, with varying degrees of success, until I was introduced to the real thing at a Stockholm restaurant called KB, from where I gleaned the following recipe. They use chicken stock, but I like it just as well made with water. I specify a liquidizer rather than a food processor, because I find it produces a less gluey purée.

This technique of making soup works equally well with spinach, lettuce, parsley or broccoli. The potato, leek and onion mix is the basis for so many soups. On its own, it is the classic soup potage bonne femme and delicious in its own right Chilled, with cream stirred in and topped with chopped chives, it becomes vichyssoise. Using this base, I once made five soups in ten minutes during a television demonstration.

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Ingredients

  • 1 large onion
  • 2 large potatoes
  • 1 large leek
  • 450g/1 lb young nettles
  • 55g/2 oz butter
  • about 575 ml/1 pt chicken stock or water
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 tbsp crème fraîche, to serve (optional)

Utensils

  • two large saucepans
  • rubber or surgical gloves
  • pasta or blanching basket liquidizer

Method

Cooking

In the second pan, melt the butter over a low heat and sweat the vegetables in it for 5 minutes. Cover them with stock or water and simmer until just cooked.

Liquidize the contents of the pan (holding a cloth over the top to avoid getting splattered with hot purée) and return to the rinsed-out saucepan.

Dip the basket of nettles into the large pan of fast boiling water for 60 seconds. Refresh in cold water and pack into the liquidizer while still wet Blend to a purée.

Add the nettle purée to the basic vegetable mixture in a proportion of roughly 2 tablespoons of nettle purée to I ladleful of potato mixture. Taste and season with salt and pepper. If the soup is too thick, add a little more water as necessary.

Heat through gently, stirring, but don't boil or you will lose the vivid green colour.

Mise en Place

Put plenty of water in a large saucepan and bring to the boil • While the water is heating, dice the onion, potatoes and leek • Wearing rubber gloves (or surgical gloves, which make you feel X-rated), strip the leaves off the nettles. Wash them and put them in the blanching basket.

Serving

Serve in 4 warmed plates. If you want to garnish the soup, float a spoonful of crème fraîche on top of each plateful.

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