In Latin, she goes by Urtica dioica, but you may know her as "stinging nettle." The word "stinging" can be a bit of a turnoff, especially in the kitchen.
I urge you to get over it, as I did more than 20 years ago, because the gastronomic perks far outweigh this temporary obstacle. Nettles make fabulous pesto.
The sting (more like a mild irritation) is a thing only when the leaves are raw. A pair of disposable gloves will keep the invisible stinging hairs at bay, and once the nettles are cooked, the sting disappears. Poof, goodbye.
A perennial herb that grows wild in woodlands and along rivers and streams, nettles are among the first edible signs of spring. They are exceptionally nutrient dense, packing fiber, protein, iron and calcium, to name a few, plus disease-fighting antioxidants in the form of carotenoids. They offer antihistamine and anti-inflammatory support, which makes them great food during seasonal allergy season. (And it bears repeating -- they make fabulous pesto.)
My maiden voyage with nettles was in the Piemonte region of Italy, where I was a culinary student in the spring of 2000. Chef Sergio tasked me with preparing risotto for lunch, using nettles that had been picked along the perimeter of the school property. I can hardly remember if I wore gloves while plucking the leaves from the stems, but the intense double-spinachlike earthiness -- that I remember like yesterday.
It would be several years later when nettles and I got reacquainted, thanks to a passionate forager named Eric who moonlighted at a used bookstore in our Seattle neighborhood. Without him, I am not sure I ever would have gotten to know — and love — nettles as much as I do or learn about other foraged jewels like fiddlehead ferns and lamb’s quarters. In fact, having a local forager on speed dial made it possible for me to develop recipes for my 2017 cookbook, “PNW Veg.”
A few years ago at this time, I was headed East for a cookbook event at a restaurant in Brooklyn. A cold spring there had delayed the arrival of nettles, which meant that if I wanted nettle pesto on my menu, I needed to travel with them. At the 11th hour, Eric hooked me up with two pounds of freshly foraged nettles, which amounted to two grocery store-sized plastic-handle bags. The aroma was pungent in a “who’s been smoking marijuana?” sort of way; it was so strong, in fact, that I decided to carry the nettles on board with a note on top that screamed STINGING NETTLES in all caps. I had nothing to hide, but I did chuckle as I placed my highly aromatic backpack on the conveyor belt for screening at the TSA checkpoint. My red-eye flight was uneventful, and we all arrived in New York in one piece (and nettle pesto was on the menu the next day).
Last spring was our first here in Lancaster but due to the pandemic (and no local foraging connection), we had nary a nettle. Now, two local foragers -- Elisabeth Weaver of Lancaster Farmacy and Alex Wenger of Fields Edge Research Farm -- are on my VIP list (along with the mechanic and gastroenterologist), making life a little bit more chlorophyll rich, stem by stem.
A few nettle notes:
- The notorious sting comes from invisible prickly hairs located on the stems and the underside of the leaves that can be irritating, so I highly recommend wearing gloves while washing and prepping.
- After cooking nettles, you can fish out leaves versus discarding liquid and sip as tea.
- Similar to spinach, nettles have a high water content and will shrink considerably when cooked. Four cups of raw nettles results in less than 1 cup cooked.
- Grated nutmeg is optional for the pesto, but if you have it on hand, even a smidge brightens the end result.
- Cheese is also cook's choice the pesto; ricotta softens the chlorophyll-forward notes, but I also like pecorino for its salty sharpness. Often I will omit cheese and add as a garnish.
STINGING NETTLE PESTO
Adapted from “PNW Veg” by Kim O'Donnel.
Makes about 1 cup.
- 1/4 pound stinging nettle (about 4 packed cups)
- 1/3 cup unsalted walnuts (Nut-free Plan B: unsalted sunflower seeds or pepitas)
- 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/3 cup ricotta cheese or grated pecorino (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional but really nice)
1. Prep the nettle wearing a pair of latex or rubber gloves. Separate leaves from stems and place leaves in a large bowl (and discard the stems). Rinse leaves a few times or until the water runs clean. Drain and set aside.
2. Bring about 4 cups of water to a boil. Add the leaves and return to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes. (It’s now safe to remove gloves.)
3. Drain leaves and run under cold water until cool to the touch.
4. Using your hands, squeeze out as much water as possible. You will end up with a remarkably small and shrunken green ball.
5. In a food processor or high-powered stand blender, process walnuts, garlic and salt until ground. Add the nettle ball and the oil and process until very well blended.
6. Transfer to a bowl and stir in cheese, if using. Stir in the red pepper flakes and taste for salt, adding more as needed. Add a few pinches of nutmeg, stir and taste (it brightens the flavor).
7. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Keeps well for up to 1 week.