It seems somewhat appropriate to make a soup from weeds, having just been reading an account of the famine in North Korea in the 1990's. At the height of the famine, city dwellers used to walk out to the countryside to look for edible weeds. Of course the areas closest to the towns got cleared out of edible foods quite quickly, and people had to walk further and further, while having less and less energy to do so. Often they ended up making 'soup' by boiling handfuls of grass in water. The nettle soup below would have been considered high living by the North Koreans, as it contains dairy products and chicken stock, which would have been absolute luxuries. I suspect a North Korean version would most likely contain whole chopped nettle plants, boiled in water. It is hard to get accurate numbers, since the regime has been so closed to the outside world, but estimates range from 600,000 to 2.5 million deaths due to starvation/malnutrition during the 1990's. In fact a survey by the World Food Programme of 250 North Korean households in the summer of 2008 found that two thirds were STILL supplementing their diets by picking grass and weeds in the countryside, and most adults didn't eat lunch for lack of food. If you want to read more about the life of the average joe citizen of North Korea through the 80's, 90's and first 8 years of this century, i recommend Barbara Demmick's book, "Nothing to Envy". It is extremely insightful, and was a real eye-opener for me, not to mention timely reading in view of current world politics.
Nettles (Urtica dioica) are a great source of vitamin A, and also provide iron, magnesium and calcium. Not only that, but nettles have been shown to have antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-ulcer, astringent and analgesic capabilities. Despite that, they are seldom eaten, which may be something to do with the stinging capability of this lush green plant. Someone once showed me that you can gently brush a nettle with a small stick or twig, and immediately after you can touch it with your bare skin and not get stung (it's true! i sometimes use this trick when weeding, as i don't usually wear gardening gloves). However i recommend using rubber gloves and long sleeves when harvesting, to avoid unwanted and painful stimulation.
I came across this recipe in "the Edible Journey Cookbook - a taste of Banks Peninsula", a book produced as a fundraiser by the Tai Tapu School. Despite the nutritional benefits of nettles, i was mostly attracted to making this soup because it was described as "stunningly bright green", and, as i have told you before, i love green food. However i was somewhat disappointed by the colour of the finished product - it was definitely green, but i wouldn't go so far as to call it "stunningly bright". Never mind, it was an interesting experiment.
This is a very thin soup; most of the soups i make have a lot more body to them, and you definitely couldn't use this soup as a main meal (unless in famine conditions, in which case it would do very well). Serve it as an entree, or if you really want to use it as the main event, add something to thicken it - i cooked up a cup of green split peas, pureed them and stirred them through.
The recipe comes from Scotland, and was submitted by 'Henrietta of Killiecrankie'. The notes state that the soup is best made with spring-fresh nettles, and recommends using scissors to help gather just the top rosette of each stem. It takes a fair few nettle plants to collect the required amount of rosettes; i barely managed to fill a 2 litre container from our 13 acre property.
I have made a minor change to the recipe - the original called for 4 cups of milk, and 4 chicken stock cubes, however as the nettles don't have a particularly strong flavour i think it is worth using a homemade stock (or good quality bought liquid stock), and then adding milk powder.
From "The Edible Journey; A taste of Banks Peninsula"
Serves 4 as an entree
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon of butter
1 x 2 litre container fresh stinging nettle rosettes
1/3 cup water
4 cups good quality chicken stock
4 heaped tablespoons milk powder
Saute the onion in the butter in a large saucepan over a low heat until soft. While the onion is cooking give the nettles a good wash in cold water. Add the nettles to the cooked onion in the pan with a third of a cup of water, then bring to the boil with the lid on. As soon as the nettles are wilted and soft use a food processor or stick blender to puree until smooth.
Return to the pan and add the stock and milk powder. Stir well and bring to a simmer to heat through.
Serve with a dollop of cream.