There's a restaurant in northwest D.C. called Blue Ridge (the brainchild of chef Barton Seaver) that I enjoy because it focuses on local, seasonal, sustainably sourced ingredients without coming across as self-righteous. It's the kind of place where waiters wear jeans and serve popcorn in brown paper bags—but it's also the kind of place where they'll suggest topping your grits with a poached duck egg, or tell you which farm your grass-fed burger grew up on.
Blue Ridge is where I discovered that stinging nettles—a weed which I once associated only with childhood stings and scratches—are not only edible, but delicious. Stinging nettles (scientific name Urtica dioica) are a common weed throughout North America, and they're springing up all over the place right now as the weather warms.
Yes, there's good reason for the plant's name: the stems and leaves of stinging nettles are covered in tiny, needle-like hairs that will give you a nasty rash if you touch them with bare skin. But the compounds that cause this reaction are deactivated by cooking, and the young leaves are said to be full of nutritional value, including calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamins A and B.
Wildman Steve Brill has lots of information about the various nettle species and how to gather them safely in the wild; you can also sometimes buy them at farmer's markets in springtime.
Blue Ridge's sous chef, 33-year-old Jason Wood, learned to love nettles and other edible weeds when he trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. He often makes tea with nettles, and it was his idea to add stinging nettle soup to the restaurant's spring menu.
"I'm a little nettle-crazy right now, because they're not going to be around forever, so I want to embrace them," he said, then realized that probably wasn't the best choice of verbs. "Well, not literally...when I was a kid, visiting my grandmother, I ran into a patch of them. That was bad news bears!"
Wood said the restaurant gets its nettles from Path Valley, an Amish farm co-op in Pennsylvania, but the kitchen staff still has to remove the leaves from the stems before cooking. They all approach the ingredient with extra caution after Wood got stung through a hole in the bag of the first shipment.
"It itched all day," he said. "Now we all put gloves on and sort of get in a huddle to take the leaves off...no one else has been stung. I think I was the example."
The leaves are harmless once they're cooked for just a couple of minutes, and can be used in place of spinach in many recipes. Wood's amazingly simple soup recipe combines nettles with onions, potatoes, chicken or vegetable stock (he's used both, depending on whether he wants a richer or lighter flavor in the batch). The result is a beautiful emerald-green color that tastes like spring in a bowl; lemon juice adds zing, and a swirl of creme fraiche makes a nice garnish.
It's been selling well in the restaurant, Wood said, although at least one person isn't too impressed.
"When I told my grandmother I cook with nettles, she just said, 'You're still messing around with those?'" he said, laughing.
Blue Ridge Restaurant's Stinging Nettle Soup
1 Tbsp butter
1 onion, diced
1 lb Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 lb fresh nettle leaves (NOTE: use gloves to handle while raw)
6 to 8 quarts vegetable or light chicken stock
Juice of 1 or 2 lemons
Creme fraiche or plain yogurt (optional)
Melt 1 Tbsp butter in a large stockpot. Sweat onion in butter until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add potatoes and 6 quarts stock, stir to incorporate. Bring to a boil, then let simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in nettle leaves and cook 3-4 minutes more. Add salt & lemon juice to taste. Puree very well in a blender or with an immersion blender, adding more stock if needed to adjust thickness. If texture is still too fibrous, push through a fine sieve. Serve hot. Optionally, garnish with a dollop of crème fraiche or plain yogurt.