Soupe de la Semaine: Nässelsoppa, the Stinging Nettle Soup from Sweden

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In a perfect world, I’d have a beautiful serving shot for you, but I froze the soup for a friend, so here’s one I nicked from the Queen of Kammebornia.

I’m continually surprised by the lengths to which our species will go to get food. Olives give us stomach aches straight from the tree? Maybe soak them in lye, then, because a little lye makes everything tasty. Rhubarb leaves are potentially deadly? Okay, let’s just harvest the stalks, and see if they won’t kill us. Nettles sting us when we touch them? Then we’ll boil them, and then perhaps they won’t sting.

I completely apprehend the ancient sensibility of finding local greens, boiling them, and consuming the broth. In every culture, you can find some version of this basic idea. Maritimers all over the globe even harvested seaweed, which makes for a magnificent, if humble, soup.

So far, a credible origin story for the Swedish version of this soup has not emerged, but since there are similar versions of it in Ireland, Scotland, and Native American culture, I’m presuming that the arc of its development was probably not that of something being spread from a single source, but a soup with a parallel evolution wherever Urtica dioica flourished (originally Europe, Asia, and western North Africa, but now pretty much everywhere). The bottom line is that it is ancient, dating back to the Bronze Age, and if something has persisted that long, there’s a reason.

I dug through dozens of recipes to arrive at this one, many of them Google Translated from Swedish. If you go out hunting on your own, don’t be put off by instructions for chopping nostrils, or be dissuaded by “raspberry soup” mistranslations. So long as you handle the raw nettles with care, your nostrils are safe. You will want to use gloves or tongs for the initial cleansing, though. Gotta respect a plant that employs not only miniscule thorns, but also formic acid, to try to keep itself safe from the likes of soup-making us.

This can easily be adapted to a vegan recipe by omitting the eggs, crème fraîche/sour cream, and chicken stock. Be sure to use a really good vegetable stock to get the depth of flavour the soup deserves. Roasting the vegetables before putting them in the stock is a must for this recipe.

Have a care with these before they’re given the hot broth bath.

INGREDIENTS
30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
500g / 1 lb stinging nettle shoots and leaves
1 liter / 4 cups good quality chicken or vegetable stock
500ml / 2 cups water
5-10g / 1-2 tsp salt
1-2g / 1-2 tsp dried thyme
pinch white pepper
20g / 2 tablespoons potato starch (or corn starch)
4 hard boiled eggs
10-20 chives, chopped
250 ml / 1 cup crème fraîche, optional (sour cream may be substituted)

Ready for the purée.

DIRECTIONS
Rinse nettles thoroughly, picking out grass and any foreign objects, then drain. In a large pan, heat the oil, thyme, salt, and white pepper, and then sauté the onion for about 5 minutes, until soft without colouring. Add the water and stock. Bring to a boil and then add nettles. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Using immersion blender, purée soup until smooth (or use food processor/VitaMix). Dissolve the potato starch in a little water and stir it into the soup. Bring back to a gentle boil, stirring regularly until it thickens slightly. Check and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot with quartered or halved hard-boiled eggs, chopped chives, and a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche.

Despite what Kermit said, it actually is easy being green.

Soupe de la Semaine: Duck Egg Drop Soup

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Soup is good food.

Let me say this right up front: working with lemongrass is a pain in the ass. When I discover pieces of it in tom kha gai, it’s always like tasty little bits of indigestible wood, and I never have a graceful way of disposing of them. In theory, you can pound it into paste, but since I don’t have a four-ton press hanging about, I haven’t done that. I may try chopping it up and popping it in the Vita-Mixer with a little liquid to see if I can get something useful, and when that happens, I will share the consequences, even it it results in having to replace the Vita-Mixer. That said, lemongrass tastes so good, it’s worth the effort.

Today, I decided to throw about a dozen stalks and three liters of filtered water into the Instant Pot® and make, in essence, lemongrass broth. It was almost like a tea; fairly aromatic, but somewhat insubstantial, so I threw in some Better Than Bouillon stock paste for good measure. A couple of recent impulse purchases meant that I had a dozen duck eggs and a gigantic bag of Chinese leeks laying about, so I went improv in a big way. I’ve always liked egg drop soup, so I thought I’d try my hand at it. Simple simple simple.

The first chore was to clean the lemongrass, which had a fair amount of residual dirt, and then chop off the bits that weren’t going to be useful. The New York Times food section website has an excellent video on just how to do that. I did not bruise the lemongrass first, figuring that there was no need to leave any of those aromatic oils on my butcher block; the Instant Pot®’s pressure cooking function was adequate to force them into the broth. 30 minutes of high pressure with a natural release was just fine, as I was in the midst of doing other stuff at the time. Yay for multitasking, especially when a machine takes on half the tasks.

After the lemongrass broth was complete, I added the Better Than Bouillon stock paste to give the broth some heft, and added a little potato starch for thickening. The Chinese leeks are actually more similar to garlic chives than traditional leeks in taste and texture, and a quick clean and chop rendered them soup-ready. For the finale, a couple of duck eggs (or chicken eggs, if that’s what you have) pulled it all together. I could easily have gone more complex with spices or seasonings, but the stock paste brought sufficient salt into the equation, and I wanted to let the rest of the ingredients speak for themselves. A tablespoon or two of fish sauce would have been a welcome addition on some other day, and you’re welcome to play with your own mix. I can even imagine a place for some five spice powder or star anise as potential components, but on this day in this place, I opted for simplicity and it tasted fresh and good.

The technique for “dropping the egg” is pretty straightforward. whisk a couple of eggs in a Pyrex® measuring cup, then whisk a couple of ladles of the hot broth into the eggs. At that point, you can drizzle the egg-broth mixture into the hot soup a bit at a time as you stir the soup. Voila: egg threads. Done and done. I served it in bowls because it was hot and needed the surface area to cool a bit, but mugs are fine serving vessels as well.

Duck Egg Drop Soup
serves 8-12 as a starter

Tiny for leeks, aren’t they?

INGREDIENTS
3.5 liters / 15 cups water
12 stalks lemongrass, cleaned and halved (see above for technique)
3 tablespoons / 60 g Better Than Bouillon stock base
2 cups / 200 g Chinese leeks, chopped (green onions or garlic chives or leeks can be substituted)
2 duck or chicken eggs
2 tablespoons / 20 g potato starch (or corn starch)

DIRECTIONS
Clean and chop lemongrass (see video for technique). Add to Instant Pot® with 3.5 liters / 15 cups water. Turn lever on lid to “Sealing” (rather than “Venting”) and press the “Soup” button, adjusting the time to 30 minutes if necessary. When cycle is done, allow to depressurize naturally or turn lever to “Venting,” depending on your time constraints. Remove lemongrass stalks and add stock base and chopped Chinese leeks. Turn Instant Pot® off, then press the “Saute” button to heat the soup base. Whisk together potato starch and a small amount of stock (approximately 125 ml / ½ cup) to form a slurry; gradually add another 125 ml / ½ cup of stock while whisking, then add the thickened stock to the Instant Pot® container.

Crack two eggs into a Pyrex® measuring cup or other bowl, then whisk in about 250 ml / 1 cup of hot broth, stirring constantly. Drizzle that mixture into the Instant Pot® container, stirring constantly, so the egg becomes threadlike. Turn Instant Pot® off (or set to warming mode), and serve.