When 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.
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
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
When handling the nettles before they are cooked, use gloves or tongs. Do not touch them with your bare hands.
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.
Blend until the consistency is smooth, adding the 2 tablespoons of water if needed to thin it out. Add salt to taste.