21 March 2011

21 March - St. Benedict; Nettle Soup

In the traditional calendar, today is the feast of Saint Benedict of Nursia, father of Western Monasticism (the revised calendar celebrates him on July 11).

He was born into a noble Roman family and received the education commensurate with his station in life, but early finding that he wanted more spiritually than was to found in his society, he went to live in solitude for a time.  Subsequently, he became a hermit, but his sanctity and knowledge led many to seek him out, including a group of monks who wished him to be their abbot.  Big mistake.  His attempts to reform them led to their attempts to poison him; he took the hint and went back to solitary living.

However, others came to learn from him, and for them he established monasteries, eventually writing his Rule for conducting their lives.

An important point about the Rule is found in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
"1. Before studying St. Benedict's Rule it is necessary to point out that it is written for laymen, not for clerics. The saint's purpose was not to institute an order of clerics with clerical duties and offices, but an organization and a set of rules for the domestic life of such laymen as wished to live as fully as possible the type of life presented in the Gospel."

You can read an analysis of the Rule of St. Benedict here and the Rule itself here.  Reading two chapters of the Rule every day is a good Lenten practice.

In honor of Saint Benedict, make NETTLE SOUP.

Why, you ask?  A good question.

In Rumer Godden's novel "In This House of Brede", the Benedictine nuns have "Nettle Soup" on their founder's day (and the nettles are picked by the novices, leading to a crisis).  Perhaps this is traditional for Benedictine monasteries - I don't know (yet).  St. Benedict is said to have rolled in nettles whenever he was attacked by lustful thoughts, or as related in The Golden Legend "...and after, he despoiled himself all naked and went among thorns and wallowed among the nettles, so that his body was torn and pained, by which he healed the wounds of his heart. Then after that time he felt no more temptation of his flesh."  In consequence, he is invoked against nettle rash.

Nettles are a perennial.  They are also rich in vitamins, and you can imagine that, after a winter of eating stored vegetables which were dried when gathered (like peas) or which dried out and wrinkled each day successively as the months wore on (like carrots), the first greens to show themselves were much relished.  The additions of iron and vitamins A and C to combat that run-down, spring-fever malaise didn't hurt; that it was said to purify the blood can probably be laid to the increase in iron as well.

I am told that one can find nettles in farmer's markets.  I don't know.  For the following recipe, I use scallions or green onions.  However, if you do find nettles and want to use them LISTEN CAREFULLY! I will say this only once.  Nettles sting.  That's why they are called stinging nettles.  They are like poison ivy and poison oak and other evil plants.  They will hurt you.  They are not your friend.  If you must deal with nettles, WEAR GLOVES.  Wear gloves when you are picking them out of the farmer's market's bin or out of your own overgrown acreage.  Wear gloves when you are chopping them.  Parboiling them for a couple of minutes in salted water takes some of the sting out (so I am told).  The recipe below says nothing about that, but it is okay to be safe rather than sorry.

This recipe serves 4-6, so if it is just you and a friend, cut the recipe in half.

If using nettles, boil a pot of water with a couple of teaspoons of salt; toss in nettles and boil for a couple of minutes.  Drain and coarsely chop to equal 4 cups.

If using green onions or scallions, coarsely chop enough to equal 4 cups (one to two bunches is usually more than enough).

Slice 1 pound of potatoes (3 - 4 medium).  Slice off white part of one leek, slit white part in half, slice  each half into quarter-inch slices (i.e. thin slices).  If you didn't already clean the leek, put slices in a bowl of water, swish them around for a moment, and drain. (Yes, the slices will come apart. That's what you want.)  Make 4 cups of chicken stock (I use chicken bouillon or you could use a couple of cans of chicken broth.  In other words, use what you have.)

In a kettle melt 1/2 cup of butter (1 stick); add the chopped nettles or green onion, and the sliced leek.  Cook for about ten minutes, until soft but not brown.  Add the chicken stock, the potatoes, and 1 cup of pearl barley.  Simmer on low for about 1 hour.

Now...  in the good old days, the cook mashed everything together, then pushed it all through a sieve, to create a smooth, creamy soup.  We can use something called an immersion blender, or pour the soup into a regular blender and puree until smooth, then return it to the pot. 

Stir in 1 cup of light cream.  Taste and adjust seasonings (i.e. add salt and pepper to taste).  Heat to serving temperature.  And serve.  (If you have a few tablespoons of scallions left, sprinkle them over the top.)