Stinging nettles taste green and earthy and wild, like cooked spinach would in a teen Goth stage – not surprising, considering they’re usually foraged in the wild and eaten relatively young. But as I’ve told you before, they come by their name honestly. Resist the urge to touch them or play with them as you dump them into a pot of simmering water to tame their poisonous attitude. When they’re raw, they sting.
Cooked, though. Cooked, a tangle of nettles whirls up into a beautiful pesto, more deeply flavorful than its basiled cousin and a better bed buddy for four large cloves of garlic. Last night, I made a fairly traditional pesto, only with the nettles, and smeared it on a marinated, roasted leg of lamb, so each bite had two punches of spring. Today, when I found myself standing at the stove, hands shoved deep into my back pockets while I slurped long bucatini directly out of the cooking pot I’d used to stir them with the leftover pesto, I knew I had a recipe to share.
That was yesterday. I wrote all that – what you see above there – and then I found out that dear Kim Ricketts had passed away. There will be no more writing about nettles.
Kim was the mama of Seattle’s food scene, a literary powerhouse who brought people together for the love of food and books. I can’t say I knew her well, but I knew her well enough to be touched by her energy and her kindness. And now, the morning after the news, yesterday’s recipe seems so appropriate, because what I really feel is stung. I feel scraped raw. And I don’t know how to begin mourning someone whose soul and spunk was so immortal.
So scratch the pasta. I mean, it was good, but scratch it. Make this pesto, and take it to someone you don’t see that often, someone whose light and effervescence makes the world a better place. And thank them for being alive.
Garlicky Nettle Pesto (PDF)
Although most Seattleites find nettles at farmers’ markets this time of year, they’re also often available at Whole Foods Markets. Buy a bunch when you can, and double or triple this recipe, as needed, and freeze some, because my fortune-telling powers tell me you’ll want to twirl the pesto up with long pasta again long after the season has passed. If you have time to be thoughtful and a bit patient, you can add toasted breadcrumbs, for a bit of crunch, or chopped sundried tomatoes.
Time: 25 minutes active time
Makes: 1 generous cup
1/2 pound nettles
4 large garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/4 cups extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to a simmer for the nettles. Add the nettles directly from their bag and cook, stirring continuously, for 2 minutes. (This denatures their sting.) Dump into a colander to drain. When the nettles are cool enough to handle, wrap them in a clean dishtowel and wring out as much moisture as possible, like you would for spinach. You’ll have about a cup of cooked, squished nettles.
In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the paddle attachment, whirl the garlic, pine nuts, salt, and pepper to taste until finely chopped. Add the nettles, breaking them up as you drop them in, and the lemon juice and whirl until finely chopped. With the machine running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream, and process until smooth. Add the cheese, pulse briefly, and season to taste with additional salt, pepper, or lemon juice.
48 responses to “Stung”
Learned something new today. Thanks!
What a lovely tribute.
thanx for that, jess. so thoughtfully written, hits home for many of us.
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I enjoyed this column so much that I’m making this recipe today, but I’m a nettle novice. I’ve used the leaves in a couple recipes, but does this recipe call for the nettles to be unwashed and whole (stems and flower buds included)?
Donna, I leave the stems on. However, I haven’t every picked or purchased them with the flowers on! My instinct would be to try to find some without blossoms, since with many herbs, the flavor of the leaves changes once the plant has flowered…
You’re not supposed to eat nettles old enough to bear flowers. I’ve heard it’s bad for your liver or something. If you want to have young nettles even in the summer, scythe them periodically .
‘At the first sign of flowers you must stop picking. The plant will now start producing cystoliths – microscopic rods of calium carbonate – which can be absorbed by the body where they will mechanically interfere with kidney function.’
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I am in love with this pesto!! I can order nettles from my local farm co-op right now, and have done so the past couple of weeks. I have been eating it with a spoon…which was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. I got a pretty bad sting when handling the nettles, but it was completely worth it!
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Apparently, I think, the flower buds are toxic. ? Any nettle experts here?
Also, there is so much goodness in the juice, I’d want to find a way to simply drain the juice in order to drink as tea or something. Thanks for the recipe!
When nettles are in flower they can in excess be damaging to the organs. You can make nettle tea by brewing the leaves for 20 mins and drinking 🙂
The flowers themselves aren’t toxic, but the nettles are tough, stringy, and bad for your liver when they are more mature.
Reblogged this on drink tea, dream loftily, repeat. and commented:
A beautifully written nettle recipe that I’m hoping to try next week!
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Just whipped it up. Thanks. I was wondering what to do with the nettles we received from our CSA.
Researching nettles, read your blog, and just wanted to say that you are a great writer!
Living in Rome, I just walk out the front door and find them lining sidewalks (go for the upper leaves due to the dogs!), parks, fields, you name it!!!
Can’t wait to make heaps of pesto.
FMaggi – Burnt by the Tuscan Sun
Can you re-use the cooking water (from the nettles) for the pasta?
Thank you Jess! Wonderful and simple recipe for nettles. I made it today and it’s in a mason jar!
I left out the parm, added some toasted almonds and threw in some fresh basil for good measure…. Mmmmm! Amazing!
In the Ingredients it calls for 1/2 lb of nettles, is that dry or blanched nettles? I picked approx. 3lbs of nettles and they cooked down to 1.5lbs I want to double or triple the recipe to save some and bring the rest to a birthday party.
Leah, 1/2 pound refers to dry fresh nettles (not dried nettle leaf), so before blanched. Does that make sense? So you have enough for 6x.
I buy from a stand at farmers market, and they have stems of 6-12″. I remove the leaves and use only those. Does the recipe assume I’m using the stems as well? Should I be bothering to do this very time consuming step? I’m assuming the stems (at least those that are not right at the top) would change the taste.
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Just wondering how long the pesto keeps for in the fridge? I steamed my nettles ands used the water left in the bottom which had the juice drip down to boil my pasta. Awesome not a drop of goodness wasted!
I keep mine for a month or two in the fridge, covered with a layer of oil on top to prevent air from getting at it. It also freezes well though!
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I have a ton of nettles growing in our family property. How do I handle/ collect them? Rubber gloves or will they pierce the gloves? Something else?
Really tough gloves, like ski gloves…
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Is there a typo here? 1 1/4 c oil seems like a lot, and you say the whole recipe makes 1 generous cup of pesto…I’m going to start with 1/4 çup olive oil and see how it goes, but please correct me if I’m misunderstanding.
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Like other plants, maybe the flowers contribute to kidney stones. Found this quote about when to avoid picking Nettles for food. ‘At the first sign of flowers you must stop picking. The plant will now start producing cystoliths – microscopic rods of calium carbonate – which can be absorbed by the body where they will mechanically interfere with kidney function.’ Definitely looking forward to pesto this spring!