If you’d asked my maternal grandfather, Phil Smith, where he came from, he would proudly reply “Drumavaddy, in the Parish of Den,” a tiny hamlet comprising a pub and a church at an out-of-the-way crossroads in the heart of County Cavan, Ireland. The land there is wild and the Smiths, being carpenters and not farmers, rented a small cottage. Phil eventually carved out a solid middle-class life in New York, accomplishing more, I am sure, than he ever would have imagined as a small boy. He would tell us stories about his humble upbringing, and one that I always remember was that his mother would send him out in the early spring to collect nettles, which grew wild in the fields. He said that she would make them into a type of a soup of which he had very fond memories. As a child, I always wondered how you could eat a nettle without it first stinging your mouth, then your throat, and eventually settling prickly in your stomach. It was a scary thought. I just received an email from one of my produce providers telling me that the first shipment of stinging nettles would be arriving this week at $10 per pound. They are one of the must-have ingredients of the moment for local trend-setting restaurant chefs.
A number of years ago, I had the good fortune to work at one of the pillars of modern French cooking, Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France. The frères Troisgros Jean and Pierre were at the forefront of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement. Their signature dish is “saumon a L”Oseille,” which is essentially a seared escalope of salmon surrounded by a silky beurre blanc in which the spring herb wild sorrel was roughly chopped and wilted at the last minute. The dish became so popular that they had to secure year-round sources for the humble early-season herb.
Closer to home, when I was a boy growing up in Riverdale, every spring we would see people foraging along the side of the Saw Mill River Parkway. My father would explain that they were harvesting dandelions, the bitter, spring sprouts. I thought that it was really strange to be eating something that grew on the edge of a highway, but I can now appreciate just what those urban gatherers were sourcing. The tiny ones are great in a salad and the more mature leaves can be sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil as a mildly bitter foil to a spring menu.
The vast majority of Westchester County homeowners spend an enormous amount of time, effort, and resources on the appearance of our lawns. No expense is spared to eradicate those bothersome tiny wild onions, garlic, and ramps, from our manmade living green carpets. These wild bulbs are another integral member of the spring harvest for local chefs and home cooks alike and will be available at our greenmarkets and produce sections soon.
Nettles, dandelions, sorrel, ramps, and wild chives and garlic are the once humble and once free ingredients that have gone decidedly upscale. Restaurant menus will be exploding this season with these trendy and pricey spring greens. Maybe during these trying economic times, we should let our lawns go to weed and we can lower our food budgets by foraging for these ingredients in our own Westchester backyards. Phil Smith certainly would have a good laugh knowing that what he harvested in the wild as a poor boy and that his mother lovingly cooked for him every spring back in County Cavan has made it to the tables of Westchester homes and restaurants alike.
STINGING NETTLE SOUP
1 cup sliced onions
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 cups packed, cleaned, tender nettle leaves
1 cup diced Idaho potatoes
4 cups water or stock
1 cup heavy cream
Coarse salt and fresh pepper to taste
Heat the oil over medium heat, then add the onion and garlic and sweat until soft. Add the nettles and wilt. Add the potatoes, water or stock, and the heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper and simmer until the potatoes are soft. Purée in a blender or food processor, check the seasoning, and serve hot with a dollop of Greek yogurt or goat cheese if you like.
If you can’t find nettles, a mixture of half spinach and half sorrel or dandelions will give you another tasty variation of this spring soup.