The first time I came across stinging nettles I was in a friend’s back yard and he said to stay away from them or I’ll be very uncomfortable when they sting and burn my skin. Then I heard an herbalist talk about how she forages for them all around Grand Rapids, Michigan. To many people, they’re a weed and a bad memory. Others use nettles for medicinal purposes. Some even consider them a superfood. When I heard the herbalist talk about her passion for cooking nettles, I thought I’d try them sometime.
Recently, they were on the spring menu at Salt of the Earth, one of my favorite local restaurants. I had them as a side dish–like sautéed greens–with pork. They tasted a lot like spinach! When my CSA farmer at Mud Lake Farm emailed me that she was offering nettles in our delivery last week, I knew I had to give them a try at home. They were delivered in a plastic bag along with the order of greens Bill and I usually get.
I stuck them in the fridge for a day or two until I found a recipe that sounded good. Ultimately, I settled on a pesto, inspired by two bloggers who had posted their recipes online: Jess Thomson and Michael Ruhlman.
With about 3/4 of a pound of nettles, I wasn’t sure exactly how to vary the quantities in their recipes, but I listed my approximate measurements below. (I hate measuring!) The main differences in the recipes were that I used pine nuts like Jess did, but Pecorino like Michael did (since Bill can eat sheep’s cheese but not pasteurized cow’s cheese.) It was so easy to make.
The key is NOT to touch the nettles until they are cooked. These are the tools I recommend using: rubber gloves, scissors, and tongs.
I put a large pot of salted water on the stove with the flame on high. When it was boiling rapidly, I donned the rubber gloves as a precaution, then used the scissors to cut the bag open. I also used the scissors to trim the woody stems from the nettles. Then I took the tongs and put the nettles into the pot.
After boiling for three minutes to remove the chemical that makes them sting, I put them in an ice bath, as Michael suggests on his blog. This cools them quickly so you can keep moving with your recipe.
Then I put them in a colander, cut off more of the thicker stems, and chopped them coarsely.
Then came the fun part. All of the following ingredients went into a food processor along with the nettles:
5 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
Juice from half a lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/3 cup Pecorino cheese, grated
1/2 tsp. salt
Ground black pepper to taste
I processed the mixture for a couple of minutes until well blended. And what I got was pesto. Just like basil pesto or spinach pesto, with lots of antioxidants. My recipe yielded about two cups…..plenty to freeze for later! Watch what I use the pesto for in my next blog post.