Spring arrives just about the time my friend Anushka appears at The Thorn with the first of her fantastic homegrown asparagus. There isn’t any warning; one morning she just will breeze into the kitchen with a wooden box laden with her beautiful bunches and continues to deliver until she hasn’t any more to pick. And that’s it; we don’t have any other supplier before the season, or after. During the short growing period, Anushka’s asparagus will feature on the menu daily. I tend to keep the dishes simple, perhaps chargrilling the spears and finishing off with a bit of fruity olive oil and a generous grating of pecorino cheese. Her not-so-perfect spears, which are slightly bent or broken, are tucked to the side in a shopping bag. I often look forward to these little ‘perks’; the tips are usually reserved for a risotto, salad or pasta with the stalks and trimmings going into making a simple, but luxurious soup.
Another indication that spring has sprung is the abundance of tender stinging nettles lining the footpaths and fields here in Mistley. Stinging nettles are extremely rich in calcium and are known to have the highest plant source of iron. In addition to being a super food, nettles are super trendy in California where the plants are now being cultivated for top restaurants and sold by the bundle at farmer’s markets! I feel very lucky to have on my doorstep (literally) this fantastic, wild and free ingredient.
Nettles have an earthly flavour that pairs well with asparagus, especially in soup. The leaves can be substituted for most dishes calling for cooked spinach; and even make a delicious pesto. A couple of favourite dishes that we will be preparing soon at The Mistley Kitchen are nettle gnocchi with a simple sauce of asparagus tips, butter and Pecorino cheese, as well as a nettle and asparagus risotto.
Harvest the plants while young and tender. Remember to wear long gloves and use scissors and only pick leaves that haven’t been sprayed with chemicals. It is also a good idea to choose plants away from the very edge of the footpath, away from areas where dogs are known to frequent. I usually pick the tender sprouts from the top of the plant. Should you get stung, I find that by rubbing crushed dock leaves, bicarbonate of soda or even toothpaste on the affected area seems to offer a bit of relief.
If you don’t have access to fresh nettles, this soup can be made substituting watercress, rocket or spinach for the nettle leaves. A tasty alternative is to throw a handful of fresh mint leaves, flat leaf parsley or tarragon into the soup before pureeing.