Stinging Nettle Pesto

It’s mid-July and there are endless fruits and vegetables to choose from at the Farmer’s Market here in New York. For today’s recipe I decided to make something that tastes like summer to me: pesto. Since I like to highlight some of the lesser-known items at the market, I put a twist on the recipe and in place of basil I’m using stinging nettles.

Stinging nettles are like something out of a frightening children’s story. Their leaves are serrated like teeth, when crushed the tips of the leaves turn a blackish brown, and they’re covered with spiky hairs that sting on contact. When touched, the hairs can release an acid that irritates skin and can cause a rash. If you get stung, the irritation can be very minor, or it could last for a day. Oddly enough, the best antidote to a nettle sting is the juice of its own leaves. Another remedy is spreading baking soda mixed with water on the affected area. But be brave! I’ve never been stung when cooking with nettles. And the risk is worth it. They look too fibrous to be tasty, but all they need is a minute of boiling to transform into a rich, flavorful green vegetable that is a lot like spinach.

Nettles are very versatile, and once they’ve been cooked through they can be used where you’d use any leafy green. They lend themselves wonderfully to purees and sauces. Nettles are weeds that grow throughout the country, in pastures, orchards, and on roadsides.

The variety of health benefits attributed to nettles is impressive, and is almost reason enough alone to incorporate them into your diet. They are very high in vitamins A and C, and are being tried in treatments for kidney ailments, prostate cancer, gall bladder problems, arthritis relief, and hepatitis. Studies show that nettles help rid the body of accumulated uric acid, making it a powerful remedy for gout, arthritis, and various skin problems. In traditional medicine, fresh nettle juice massaged into the scalp is believed to stimulate hair growth, and applied directly to affected areas the leaves are said to cure chronic rheumatism.

An old anecdote about nettles says that the invading Roman soldiers in Britain whipped each other’s legs with nettles, as the stinging and irritation helped to keep them warm in the unfamiliar cold climate. I hope you will experience only the pleasure of nettles, and none of its pain.

Time: 1 hour

1 large bunch stinging nettles or 3 cups nettles cooked and drained
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ cups pine nuts
2 lemons, juiced
2 cups olive oil
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, tightly packed
Salt and pepper

Fill a large pot ¾ full with water. Place over high heat and stir in 1/2 cup of salt. Cover and bring to a boil.

Fill the sink or a large bowl with cold water. Using gloves or tongs submerge the nettles in the water and let them sit for 5 minutes. Using tongs or gloves remove nettles and discard water. Using gloves, pull the leaves away from the large tough stems and discard stems.

When water is boiling, throw in cleaned nettles and boil for 1 minute. Strain out water and spread nettles on a pan or plate to cool. The cooking water has a lot of flavor and nutrients, and can be saved and used the same way as stock. When the nettles are fully cooled, squeeze as much excess water from nettles as possible, and then roughly chop.

Place chopped nettles in a food processor with minced garlic, pine nuts, lemon juice, olive oil, and a dash of salt and pepper. Process for 30 seconds, stop, scrape down the sides of the food processor, and repeat as many times as needed until nettles are broken down and the mixture has formed a paste. Scrape the mixture into a bowl and fold in the grated cheese. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve pesto tossed with raw or cooked vegetables, pasta, risotto, or stirred into soup. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper. Pesto can be refrigerated for up to 5 days, or stored in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Yield: 5 cups

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