nettle pesto

nettle pesto recipe with (mostly) pantry ingredients, plus some prickly foraging

Maybe we should just stop eating. Did you read this op-ed about chicken in the NY Times? Benadryl and Prozac laced drumstick, anyone? News about American agricultural practices will do more than curl your hair. You may run for the hills and take up foraging. In that spirit – and because it’s suddenly in season in the climate-altered northeast – this post is devoted to stinging nettles.

Sorry to sound so doomsday. The good news is that foraging is fun and it takes you for a walk on the wild side. For inspiration, read chef René Redzepi’s book, Noma, with sexy photos of pine needles and acorns. Redzepi is the patron saint of foraged foods. I heard him speak at a NY Public Library LIVE event some years ago. On each of the 300 or so seats in the auditorium, attendees found a plain brown paper lunch bag with a handful of edible berries, seaweed and roots. Better than popcorn and a serious conversation starter.

Stinging nettles are those nasty weeds that leave your skin prickly if you brush against them on a hike. A gardener’s enemy. An invasive plant. They’re also a kind of super-food. I found them in the Food Coop this week (my urban existence and work commitments prevented me from foraging, alas). I knew they were a harbinger of spring. You can find them growing in Central Park and abandoned lots in the Bronx.

A quick dash about the Internet taught me that stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) contain high amounts of potassium, iron, sulphur, vitamin C, vitamin A and B complex vitamins. Nettles are also rich in protein and fiber. Whopping nutritional value for a low calorie weed.

Handle with care! Use leather gloves to pick them, clipping only the younger shoots. Blanche nettles in salted boiling water for two minutes to remove the sting and prepare them for cooking. Serve them as a vegetable side. Make nettle pasta dough or a simple soup. Replace any leafy green in a favorite recipe, using nettles instead. I decided to make pesto and shock (if not sting) my nature loving albeit strange-ingredient averse teenagers. Their mother is a witch…

Nettle Pesto

You can find stinging nettles growing wild just about everywhere. Snip the younger shoots – with thick gloves on! – and blanch them – with tongs! – for 2 minutes in salty boiling water. Remove and immediately immerse in an ice bath, to stop the cooking and retain the bright green color. Squeeze the water out in handfuls before using the blanched nettles in cooking. Treat them as you would any leafy green: sautéed in garlic and oil, as an ingredient in risotto or a pasta dish, in an omelet or frittata.

4 ounces stinging nettles, blanched (a heaping cup, once blanched and water squeezed out)
1.5 ounce/3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted and divided
2 ounces/ 1 cup finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, best quality, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature (optional)

In a food processor, pulse blanched nettles, 2 tablespoons of toasted pine nuts, ½ cup Parmesan, salt, olive oil and pepper. Consistency should be a little rough, not baby food puréed.

Add butter by hand just before serving pesto over pasta, or as a spread on little toasts. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Sprinkle with additional cheese and pine nuts.