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.