Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
10 Mar

Stinging Nettle Pesto

nettle pestoWhen preparing a meal from stinging nettles, you can’t help but wonder who was brave (or crazy) enough to discover that this invasive, weed-like plant covered with stinging hairs was edible in the first place. At first glance nettles look innocent enough, with a deep green color and delicate, serrated leaves. If you look closely, though, you’ll also see hundreds of tiny hairs that can prick your skin and inject histamine, causing a painful stinging sensation. The sting can last for hours or days and is highly unpleasant. Nettles are exactly the type of plant you want to steer clear of when walking in the woods, so how nettles ended up in someone’s cooking pot is hard to understand. It’s a good thing they did, however, because nettles are an incredibly nutritious plant with a mild, likeable flavor.

Although nettles sound like adventurous eating, all it takes to remove the stinging venom is cooking the leaves and stems. The most reliably efficient way of doing this is boiling nettles for a few minutes before proceeding with a recipe. After boiling, you can safely prepare nettles in a bunch of simple ways – sauté in oil with garlic, simmer in broth and then puree into a soup or scramble chopped nettles with eggs. The flavor is often compared to spinach, but nettles also have a mellow herbaceousness that makes for tasty pesto. This pesto can be spread over cooked vegetables, meat and seafood.

stinging hairs

Nettle pesto is rich, thick and mildly flavored – it also happens to be really healthy. Nettles are high in protein, iron, vitamins A and C and numerous minerals and have been used for centuries in various medicinal ways.

The beginning of spring is when nettles show up in farmers’ markets and some grocery stores. Nettles are considered an herb, but are usually displayed near dark leafy greens. In many regions nettles grow abundantly in the wild so if you use caution when harvesting the plant, you can forage your own. Whether you spot nettles in the wild or at the market, just remember one thing: don’t casually reach out and grab a handful to take home. Always use gloves or tongs or you won’t have fond memories of your first experience with nettles!

Servings: Makes 1 cup

Ingredients:

ingredients 8
  • 1 cup boiled, roughly chopped nettles (about 6 cups raw nettles)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional – but it gives the pesto great flavor)
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • Salt to taste

Instructions:

When handling the nettles before they are cooked, use gloves or tongs. Do not touch them with your bare hands.

nettles

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the nettles and boil for 3 minutes. Remove the nettles from the water. Squeeze the leaves and stems to remove as much remaining liquid as you can. The stems can be stringy but a food processor can puree them. If you want a pesto that is less thick, however, you should only use the leaves in the pesto.

Roughly chop the nettles.

In a food processor, blend the nuts, garlic and cheese until finely chopped. Add the nettles and while the blade is running slowly drizzle in the olive oil.

blending ingredients

Blend until the consistency is smooth, adding the 2 tablespoons of water if needed to thin it out. Add salt to taste.

nettle pesto

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. What a good idea! Last summer I picked nettles to make a very tasty soup (with home made broth, cream and a poached egg…really, try it :-)). I never thought of using nettles for pesto. Thanks for the recipe!

    Fair Flavors wrote on March 10th, 2012
    • Nettles came into favor as a staple food, a safe fall-back food, in famine times or failed harvest of other foods. Dependable, abundant, and rich in nutritional value! Desperation drove the use but it has been used for centuries as a medicinal plant anyway so already ‘known’ as it were as useful, safe etc.

      Michelle wrote on March 12th, 2012
  2. oh god, that looks so good. Pesto is one of my favorite things!

    Burn wrote on March 10th, 2012
  3. see these in the farmer’s market all the time, but i’ve never been bold enough. and i’ve never had gloves with me!

    jakey wrote on March 10th, 2012
  4. I haven’t eaten nettles for years and don’t really remember what they taste like, but I wonder how the flavor compares to basil…

    Peggy The Primal Parent wrote on March 10th, 2012
  5. Hmm… I think I’ll pass on this one.

    Frank wrote on March 10th, 2012
  6. I’m not surprised that a plant which has evolved a physical defense is very nutritious. Like nuts, which are protected by a hard shell, or tubers, which hide underground, the physical defense means less reliance on biochemical deterrents.

    We clever monkeys have found ways to defeat these and many other plant defenses!

    Gary Katch wrote on March 10th, 2012
  7. Cool, my backyard is full of them. I’ve been using them in nettle soup and also blended them raw in green smoothies. I found blending is enough to deactivate those prickly hairs… I’ve never yet ‘burned’ my mouth :)

    Ilona wrote on March 10th, 2012
    • I love nettle soup! Can’t wait!
      I also make nettle juice and it’s very good (and not stinging).

      Anca wrote on March 11th, 2012
  8. Nettles make a great spring tonic for the liver after a winter of heavy foods. Dandelion greens and sorrel are other good spring tonic greens. It’s nice to be thinking about spring!

    Debra wrote on March 10th, 2012
  9. How interesting. I first read of nettles as food in Jean Aeul’s Earth’s Children books, an have long wondered how they tasted. I can’t eat garlic (gives me a fearsome pain) but I can make variations on this for sure.

    Now I just need to find some nettles!

    Odille Esmonde-Morgan wrote on March 10th, 2012
  10. Definitely an adventurous option. Not sure it would be worth the trouble for me, especially since there are so many easier options available. However, if you’re lost in the wilderness and there is nothing else, I guess it’s something to remember ….

    Joanna wrote on March 10th, 2012
  11. Try adding to a simple chicken bone broth based soup for a soupe au pistou – it tastes amazing! I make my own pesto with rocket, but nettle is something my gran always used in soup, interchangeably with sorrel (a lot more sour). I can’t find any in London though, besides dried nettle in nettle teabags! Nettle is really good for absorbing nutrients and it has lots of minerals, and I miss it!

    Milla wrote on March 10th, 2012
  12. This is a beautiful recipe. I can’t wait to try it with fresh nettles. It will be about another 2-3 months in my biome before adequate nettle supply is available.

    Make no mistake, nettles are a superfood.

    Mark, kudos for adding in more of these amazing wildcrafted, truly primal recipes. I’d love to see more along these lines.

    For the Rocky Mountain people, there’s a Colorado cookbook with many such recipes, available from the Turtle Lake nonprofit in Durango, CO.

    Luke Terry wrote on March 10th, 2012
  13. I just love pesto! Actually I just miss spaghetti because it makes a nice support for pesto and parmesan cheese. Sadly Spaguetti Squash is not available anymore in Brazil, so I think I will make pesto and eat it alone :)

    Juliano wrote on March 10th, 2012
    • do you have space to grow your own? Squash is fairly easy. I’m getting ready to set up my garden this year and have decided to add spaghetti squash

      bbuddha wrote on March 11th, 2012
      • We grow spaghetti squash it’s excellent but spreads. I saw a garden where a US guy had trained it up a trellis to save space. WOW! Worked really well so I will do that next season

        Michelle wrote on March 12th, 2012
  14. Nettles grow abundantly in my area. As a novice forager, I have a few more tips: 1. Pick only the newer, light-green growth on the top of the plant. The older growth tends to be tougher. 2. If you pick them with only the pads of your fingers, you don’t need gloves. 3. When you boil nettles, you can drink the water. I’m sure it’s full of nutrients, and it tastes good to me.

    Wild Bill wrote on March 10th, 2012
  15. Back in the early 1940’s my aunt had a cottage on a lake that was very wooded. My cousin, brother and myself when not swimming, played in the woods. I got into the nettles and was a mess. An older woman made a concoction of what they called sweet ferns and it worked beautifully. It’s great to know that nettles has some redeeming qualities. If I find some I would give them a try.

    Lorraine wrote on March 10th, 2012
  16. you can harvest nettles bare-handed and not get stung. if you approach the stalk in such a way as to lay the stingers down against it with your fingers, you’ll be fine–just watch out for the leaves above and on the sides. it takes concentration and focus, but it can be done reliably and repeatedly. we have our apprentice herbalists do it at least once every year.

    if you’re interested in how herbalists use nettle, here are a couple of good monographs:
    http://www.henriettesherbal.com/blog/hotw-nettles.html
    http://www.herbcraft.org/nettles%20oats%20and%20you.pdf

    and here’s a formula for a deeply nourishing tea:
    http://www.commonwealthherbs.com/2011/08/nettle-and-friends-nutritious-miracle-tea/

    ryn wrote on March 10th, 2012
  17. Yum! I used Nettles to make tea for my allergies in the past. My allergies are almost non-existent thank goodness. Nettle tea is one of my favorites and I can’t wait to try the pesto. What would you use it on??

    Suzanne wrote on March 10th, 2012
  18. Thanks for this, Mark. In New Zealand, dried nettles are widely available in health shops and are commonly used to make a tea, especially in recovery from illness and in pregnancy. I find it to be a great tonic – put a fistful of dried leaves in a jar, top with boiling water, (add a peppermint tea bag for a nice minty flavour) and pop the lid on. 12-24 hours later you have a lovely brew (which is great cold!) full of minerals, vitamins and goodness!

    Lauren wrote on March 10th, 2012
  19. I’ve been hearing about ‘pesto’ made from various ingredients for years, but what do you do with it? Eat it with a spoon? Use it as a side dish with some meat? It isn’t something I grew up with; as a matter of fact, I’ve never eaten it, or known anyone who has eaten it. I’m completely clueless about pesto.

    W.J. Purifoy wrote on March 10th, 2012
  20. When I was 3, there was a chicken that attacked me every time I went outside. My dad witnessed the last attack.The result was fried chicken for supper.
    When I think of all the times I’ve weeded my garden and ended up with a hiney full of nettles from sitting on the ground, I’m surprised I haven’t had THEM for supper. I wonder how they would taste in a simple stir fry.

    TruckerLady wrote on March 10th, 2012
  21. Surely there’s other greens from which to make pesto. Why try to “eat” something that is trying to “kill” you! or at least do you great bodily harm

    Those itty, bitty spines on the leaves are there for a reason and it’s more than just to keep you from picking the plant. Take a hint from Grok and pass this one by. I don’t doubt Grog tried to eat this stuff, but there’s nothing to indicate he continued to eat it — just my 2¢—-

    PrimalGrandma wrote on March 10th, 2012
    • You don’t know what you are missing! Once steamed or boiled the stinging hairs are gone. This is a nutrient rich food that has saved many people from starvation in times of famine. It is one of the first spring greens. It has an amazing flavor. Stronger than spinach, more tender than kale.

      Kari wrote on March 11th, 2012
    • There are lots of food that are toxic or poisonous to us until we prepare them properly. That’s part of their defense. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consume them, especially when they’re very nutritious.

      Alan wrote on March 12th, 2012
    • Back in the old days people used a stick to bash the nettle plants flat and let them dry. Once dry, the poisoneous hairs are no longer active and you can make nettle tea from it.
      Or a topical cream, etc…

      This is what my old folks used to do in Germany, they had a small farm and a nettle field for medicinal purposes.

      Arty wrote on March 12th, 2012
  22. I’ve never heard of stinging nettle before. I’d be interested to know more about it’s health benefits. and big shock here….i’ve never tried pesto. I know I know….maybe i should give this one a go!

    Sarah wrote on March 10th, 2012
  23. Sounds absolutely delicious.

    John wrote on March 10th, 2012
  24. Wow that look delicious I am sure that this would be a great meal that can help to make you lose weight and still get a nice size serving of protein. What a beautifully displayed meal, I think I will have to add these ingredients to my next shopping list. Thanks for the great read!

    Daniel B wrote on March 10th, 2012
  25. If you are out there foraging and encounter these without your tongs or gloves, look for THESE plants nearby! It really does work!

    “How to Treat It: Curled Dock plants live in the same areas that Stinging Nettles do. They are short, broad leafed plants that sort of look like overgrown Dandelions, but without the flower part. If you pick of one of their leaves and rub it on the affected area, you’ll get a little relief. Also, if you are close to home you can rub a paste of baking soda and water on it, which should make you feel better.”

    http://www.kidzworld.com/article/4660-when-plants-attack#ixzz1omz7pOMy

    Becky H wrote on March 10th, 2012
  26. Where are all those little hairs going to lodge once you ingest them? I think I’ll stick with the tea.

    Chuck N wrote on March 11th, 2012
  27. My friend brews nettle ale every summer along with eldar flower sparkling wine. I never imagined nettle could have such a sweet taste to it!

    Laura wrote on March 11th, 2012
  28. I cannot wait for the nettles to come up!! I have to wait 6 more weeks though…
    We eat a lot of them, steamed, sautee’d with bacon(yum) I love pesto, and will for sure try this one! Thank you for another great idea!

    Kari wrote on March 11th, 2012
  29. Great idea – nettles are actually an excellent source of calcium, so that is a bonus for those of us who are restricting dairy.

    Macadamias are an excellent sub for the walnuts.

    I use pestos on shirataki (konjak)” noodles”
    That is an asian yam, but not absorbed – so considered calorie free. Just don’t think of it as “pasta” and you won’t be disappointed.

    deb b wrote on March 11th, 2012
  30. I remember eating these plants (or at least their European equivalent) every spring when I was growing up in East Europe. In those times it was very rare to buy imported vegetables, and these wild veggies felt like a treat after months of potatoes and carrots. We would braise them with lots of garlic or boil them with rice. I guess they served the same purpose for us as kale and collard greens in the American cuisine.

    Nick wrote on March 11th, 2012
  31. Wow! looks delicious!

    Shawn wrote on March 11th, 2012
  32. Sounds delicious, never knew you could eat them, now I can play back sweet revenge for every summer I fall victim to these things! I will be trying this.

    rdzins wrote on March 12th, 2012
  33. I always loved nettle soup, but I haven’t seen nettles around here, so never had them in years. Such a common weed back home, not a trace in Calgary. Huh?

    leida wrote on March 12th, 2012
  34. Just made this. Delicious!

    Jean Irvin wrote on March 13th, 2012
  35. Thanks again mark! Sounds awesome

    Austin wrote on March 13th, 2012
  36. I LOVE nettles! I’ve learned if I pick them with a careful upward motion I don’t get stung…and if I DO, curly dock is usually growing nearby. Crush and rub on the owie, and voila!

    Cathy Johnson (Kate) wrote on March 19th, 2012
  37. I get the sense that the first person to eat nettles was the tribal Jerk. Everyone knew about these nettles, having encountered them before and felt the pain. They probably figured they could get him back (or get him to shut up) by feeding him these, but much to their chagrin, having stewed them, he thanked them for the meal and then went on his way, saying it was delicious. Thus, it was determined that nettles could be eaten….just my thought…

  38. I came down with some Sinus & Hay Fever last week when we were hit with the spring like weather here in WNY, and I was looking into some remedy for myself, came across information on Stinging Nettles to help relieve Hay Fever. I picked up a bottle and have been taking then over the last 3 or 4 days and the itchy eyes, nose, & ears haven’t bothered me. It is high in iron and trace minerals. I’m going to have to try that soup someone talked about in the entries.

    Brenda Living Primal wrote on March 27th, 2012
  39. There’s no need to steam the nettles if you have a food processor or if you’re going to cook them anyway. I have a couple of old posts on my former blog. One is for nettle pasta which could possibly be adapted to be primal somehow.
    http://skagitfoodshed.wordpress.com/2009/03/22/nettle-season-begins/
    http://skagitfoodshed.wordpress.com/2009/04/10/nettle-pasta/

    Saara wrote on March 31st, 2012
  40. If I remember correctly, nettle is used to relieve arthritis, too, by laying the stinging parts on the affected areas.

    For those picking their own: I went out last year and wore gloves and filled a garbage bag full… then got stung (through the plastic) when the bag bumped my skin. Make sure you wear long sleeves & pants, or carry them in something heavy enough they won’t poke through.

    Also: if you fill a jar with dried nettle, pour apple cider vinegar over and let it steep for a few weeks (shaking the covered jar every few days) then strain it… use the liquid diluted with water as a hair rinse. Adds shine, helps with dandruff, and the vinegar restores ph balance.

    Shawna wrote on April 8th, 2012

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