Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Competing with caterpillars: my first time making nettle soup

You know that feeling you get when you put your hands in the pockets of a coat you haven't worn in ages and discover money - preferably of the larger denomination variety? Well, that's the feeling I get when I succeed in foraging for food. A feeling that I'm one up on the world and have somehow managed to get something for nothing.

I'm far from being an expert forager. To date, I've only picked wild garlic to make butters and pestos (see here for more). That's why I decided to expand my range further today by foraging for nettles.

There are many things I didn't know about nettles. I didn't know how nutritious they are. They contain vitamins A and C as well as iron, calcium and magnesium. There are people who swear by their medicinal benefits, including a friend of my mother's who used to have recurring kidney problems until she started to drink nettle tea every morning.

Nor did I realise that nettles would bring me into direct competition with my boyfriend's latest hobby - caterpillars.

Yup, you read that correctly. His latest hobby is caterpillars.
He spent his childhood chasing butterflies and moths and has retained a passion for them to this day. A few weeks ago, he decided to cultivate this passion by trying to reintroduce native species to our corner of southwest Ireland. He orders baby caterpillars online. They arrive in boxes and he feeds and looks after them until they emerge into the butterflies and moths they are destined to become. This requires feeding them the foods they would naturally eat in the wild and, in most cases, this means nettles. When he saw me heading for the nettle patch at the bottom of our garden, I was warned not to take too much. "Those nettles belong to the caterpillars," I was told.

Luckily, there were lots of nettles and I didn't need that many to make my very first nutritious, and surprisingly delicious, nettle soup.

Here's what you need to know about picking nettles:
You don't want to get stung so wear gloves and use scissors to protect yourself.
You should only pick the tops of young, small nettle plants as the older ones become bitter with age.
Be sure to wash them thoroughly before cooking to remove all dirt and insects. Otherwise, you may find yourself eating some of my boyfriend's beloved caterpillars! (Be careful while washing them too as the sting isn't entirely removed from the leaves until they are cooked.)

Here's how I made my soup:
Ingredients: 150g young nettles
50g butter
1 medium sized onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 celery stick, chopped
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
2 medium potatoes, chopped
1 litre vegetable stock (I used Marigold vegetable bouillon in boiling water)
Salt and pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

  • Go through the nettles, discarding any really tough stalks.

  • Melt the butter in a large pan over a medium heat and sweat the onion, carrot and celery until soft but not coloured.

  • Add the crushed garlic and potatoes and cook for another minute or so.

  • Add the stock and simmer for ten minutes to cook the potatoes.

  • Add the nettles, pushing them down into the liquid.

  • Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes until the nettles are really tender.

  • Season with salt and pepper.

  • Allow to cool and then pureé in a blender.

  • Pour back into the saucepan and add some freshly grated nutmeg. It's hard to say how much of this you will need as it really is a question of taste but I used slightly less than half a teaspoon.

  • You could serve this with a swirl of cream and some chopped chives. But I wanted my first experience of nettle soup to be simple and unadulterated.

    It tasted just as I hoped it would: fresh, healthy and wholesome. I'm definitely going to make it again and I'm also planning to try nettle risotto. If I get to our nettle patch before my boyfriend and his caterpillars do, that is!

    1. I've been meaning to try making nettle soup for a long time. I'll try your recipe when I finally get around to it.
      And Kudos to Butterfly Man. We need more people like him!

    2. Catriona,
      Do try it. It's so tasty, healthy and cheap!
      And I've passed your comments on to Butterfly Man. He's chuffed.