“Bring home some nettles,” I told my husband a few weeks ago as we parted ways on a sunny San Francisco Saturday. I was headed to the farmers’ market and the pool and he was off to spend the afternoon with his parents in Inverness, a place where you could almost eat off the land. Depending on season, there are blackberries, thimbleberries, miner’s lettuce (for salads!), fiddlehead ferns, wild fennel, nettles, mushrooms, and probably more I don’t even know about growing rampant in forest and field. Availing oneself of nature’s bounty can be as easy as pulling on a pair of gloves and heading out into the wild (or, you know, pulling stuff growing alongside the road).
Being the good egg he is he didn’t even question why I wanted him to bring me nettles, especially since the last time we’d been out there together I went for a run out to Arch Rock and though I’d just delicately brushed against some greens growing alongside the trail – I knew better, honestly – it was enough to produce that stingy, painful rash that makes you think immediately g-d dammit, what an idiot I am. (And then of course you’ll whinge about it later to your patient spouse who will offer sympathy and calamine lotion in equal measure.) I mean, I have a history with nettles and it’s not been pretty – backpacking trips where I’ve unwittingly strode through an overgrown meadow pockmarked with the stuff, leaving me with an unpleasant, lingering sting for the remainder of the trip; the way I always confuse it with another, more benign plant and suffer the consequences; how I blithely believe I’m immune and reap the ‘reward’ (also see: poison oak, but I won’t get into that here).
But barring all that I’ve been wanting to do … something in the kitchen with nettles for a long time. Nettles are high in iron, potassium, manganese, calcium, and vitamins A and C (also a decent source of protein) – and any vegetable that can provide a great nutritional bang for the effort to make it is always appealing to me. Plus, growing wild, nearby, all I’d (err – he’d) have to do was go pick them … This is how I spend my free time: thinking up cooking projects. I thought about making a brothy, flavorful spring soup … or tea, reputed to be good for allergies … maybe a pesto …
Yes – pesto! This seemed the natural choice as I’m mildly obsessed with pesto in general and love to experiment with different combinations: straight up traditional with basil and pine nuts, almond and spinach, cheeseless, with parsley, etc. etc. Plus I didn’t have time to really explore my nettle options when I received them late-ish that night other than to shake off the bugs (sorry, little earthworm) with a pang and boil them until they wilted and their sting subsided. This is the secret to eating nettles: pick wearing thick gloves and a long-sleeved shirt (and pants), and as soon as possible plunge into a pot of boiling water. This diffuses the uncomfortable stinging part – though it’s inevitable you may receive a few whilst picking – and you’ll be left with a sleek, slick pile of vivid green leaves.
My nettles rested awhile in the fridge before I had time to fold them along with pine nuts and parmesan cheese into a very traditional pesto recipe that nonetheless tasted unique: fresh and bright, with a subtle undertone and spring. Next time I might try the nettles twirled with almonds and will use a lighter hand with the cheese (or perhaps no cheese at all). This is not to say the pesto I produced wasn’t delicious. It was: slightly floral, slightly woodsy, slightly (but only just) reminiscent of spinach. I tossed it with whole wheat spaghetti and chopped, steamed asparagus and served it as part of our Sunday Dinner the other night. That was also the night I started to come down with what would turn into a rather wicked spring cold so I have fond memories of that pesto being the last thing I could really … taste for the rest of the week.
As I mentioned last fall in regards to foraging mushrooms , there’s something extra special about finding your dinner in the woods, regardless of how far you must go to get it (ahem). I feel like I’m getting away with something – I didn’t have to grow this myself, it’s fresh, organic (very), and free? Yes, please! In the case of nettles, I also feel like I’ve one-upped nature, especially since I was recovering from a bout with poison oak the weekend I made the pesto. Take that, nettles. When I’m not paying attention you can leave me woebegone and cursing my own stupidity, but when you’re not paying attention I’ll turn you into soup! Yeah.
Either way, if you have access to nettles it’s worth an experiment. I will admit I missed the familiar pungency of basil, and thought wistfully of summer when it will be readily available – but, we have a bit longer to go and I must be patient. In the meantime: it’s spring, and there are nettles.
This weekend I am going north to see the last of the apple blossoms, celebrate mother’s day a weekend early (Sunday Dinner this week will be composed of some old favorites plus a new vegan dessert I’ve been wanting to try involving rhubarb, another harbinger of spring), have brunch with some of my favorite kiddos, go jam-tasting, catch some sun … I’m ready.
I like lots of garlic, so have included 4 cloves here, but adjust to your taste. For a vegan version, omit the cheese and try adding a bit of lemon zest for a flavorful, dairy-free boost. Pair this with pasta, drop dollops onto bowls of asparagus soup, or spread on little toasts and top with thinly-sliced radishes and sprinkling of sea salt.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
4 Tbs. pine nuts
4 garlic cloves
1 cup cooked nettles
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as
3/4 cup grated Parmesan or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Dash lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
To cook the nettles: Place leaves in a pot of salted, boiling water for three minutes or so, drain and squeeze dry. Coarsely chop.
In a food processor, combine the pine nuts and garlic. Process to chop coarsely. Add about half of the nettles and process to chop coarsely. Add the remaining nettles and olive oil and process until a thick green sauce forms. If the sauce is too thin, add more basil; if it is too thick, add more olive oil.
Add the cheese and dash of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Process briefly. Pour into a glass jar or other container and top with a thin layer of olive oil to prevent the surface from discoloring. Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.