Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Foraging On The Forest Floor - Creamy Nettle Soup

I always have been, and probably always will be, a Mountain Man.  Not necessarily in a Grizzly Adams or creepy survivalist sort of way.  More of a "this is where I find peace" sort of way.  I know this, simply because I spent 15 years in San Diego, minus the 2 years I lived in Palm Springs.

I can hear you saying, "What does that have to do with anything?"

Basically this;  I lived in what is suppose to be "America's Finest city"; and with some massive infrastructure upgrades, it just might be.  I was surrounded by sand, palm trees and sun.  Yet I think I spent a total of 5 hours at the beach in 15 years I lived down there.  For when I needed to relax and decompress, leaving behind the stresses of everyday life, I traveled 45 miles outside the city to Julian or Alpine.  While living in Palm Springs yet again, I drove 35 miles outside the city to either Big Bear or Idyllwild.

What do all these places have in common?  They are all perched atop mountains, far from the Dessert floor or the Ocean waves and, more importantly, far from the insanity of freeways, potholes, broken sewer lines spewing into the bay, rush hour traffic, sink holes and rude people.  Yes, my solace was to be found above 4000 feet.  None of those crashing ocean wave ions for me.  Give me the scent of clean crisp air, trees and moist leaf litter.  (Did you know palm trees don't smell? At least , *I* can't smell them. Odd, huh?

So, now I am safely enveloped in a protective screen of Hemlock, Alder, Western Red Cedar, Spruce, Douglas Fir, Yew, Dogwood, Broad leaf and Vine Maple with a scattering of Elder.  (it smells SO good outside, especially when it rains) Now I won't lie to you.  Their is a price to be paid for all this vibrantly verdant vegetal goodness...  Rain.

It rains a lot in the Pacific NW.  (We don't call it the "Great North WET" for nothin') As a matter of fact, that was part of the reason I left Oregon to begin with.  I was experiencing, what I thought was, Seasonal Affected Disorder.  What better place than sunny San Diego, right?  I have come to the conclusion that it was an age thing though.  Granted, I have only been back for a little over a year.  But, it's been pretty darn wet and overcast to the point where the lack of sunlight has caused me to become so pale, that I swear I will glow if exposed to black light.  But, I have not been experiencing any sort of depression. Maybe I outgrew it, maybe I was just experiencing a vitamin D deficiency and didn't know it, or maybe I am just so glad to have my mountains and trees back that it compensates for the effects of gloomy overcast skies broken only by the pervasive patter of precipitation.  (Or, I was just a young punk who didn't know how good he had it and thought the grass was "greener" on the other side of the fence)  LOL

But rain and S.A.D. aside......

The time has finally come.  There have been a few precious breaks in the clouds, releasing the rays of that ever elusive orange orb in the sky.  This has caused a western Oregon phenomenon to occur, for the harbingers of our rainy spring have "sprung" forth from their winter hibernation.... The Trilliums.

Once the trilliums bloom, many foresty things begin to happen...  Most of them are edible too.  Woo Hoo!!!   For starters, it's time to pick Morel mushrooms.  YUM!  The other exciting thing is the gathering of the nettles.  For they too, have begun their slow and methodical take-over of every empty patch of forest floor.  Poking their little heads through the forest hummus.  (Please wear gloves)

So armed with a heaping bowl of nettles, picked during one of the cloud cover's less drippy moments, I embarked upon one of my favorite foods when it's cold and wet...  Soup.

For nettles make awesome soup fodder.  Normally I would make Nässelsoppa which is a lively Scandinavian combination of nettle puree, beef stock, cream and chives to be served with a sliced boiled eggs on the side.  But I decided to take a queue from those clever Greeks and mix it up a little by putting the egg IN the soup this time.  Think Avgolemono soup, but with Cream, Nettles and an elusive hint of Saffron grassiness.   It's like a sunshine dappled forest in a bowl.

Creamy Nettle and Saffron Soup

4 cups (950 ml) Chicken Stock
1/8 tsp Saffron Threads (a pinch)
4 oz (110g) Nettle tops
Water as Kosher Salt for Blanching
2 large Egg Yolks
Lemon juice, to taste (About 1/2 of a medium lemon)
1/4 cup (60 ml) Heavy Cream
Kosher Salt
White Pepper

Soak the nettles in salted water for 10 minutes before drying in a salad spinner.

Heat the chicken stock in a medium pot, adding the saffron as the stock begins to warm.

(Yes, it's time to break out the precious saffron; but you only need a little bit.)  :)

In a separate pot, begin heating some salted water over high heat.

Once the Stock and Saffron come to a boil, remove from the flame and let set for 4 minutes before scooping out the threads. (this is a personal preference. I love saffron, but I don't like biting into the threads)

Using tongs (to keep from feeling the sting) plunge nettles into the salted boiling water and blanch for 2 minutes.

Remove from the water and spin in the salad spinner again, to remove excess water. (you can chop them if you like, but I like the whole tops floating in the soup)

In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks with lemon juice until pale.

Whisk a ladle-ful of the hot stock into the yolk mixture to condition the yolks. (I always whisk in a second ladle-ful just to be on the safe side)

Whisk the egg mixture back into the stock.

Then stir in the cream.

Add the blanched Nettles,

Then gently reheat over low flame, without boiling or it will curdle.

Season with White Pepper and Kosher Salt to taste.

You may need to adjust the acidity of the soup by adding a little more lemon juice....  I had a small lemon, so I resorted to using the whole thing, instead of only half of it.

Then serve.


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