Stinging nettles might be painful weeds that gardeners hate, but they're beloved by creative cooks across the country. They're an extra SUPER super food, a source of nearly every type of vitamin, calcium and, yes, even protein; nettle tea is said to reduce allergy symptoms. Plus, they have a mild flavor — like spinach — that makes an interesting addition to soups, salad dressing and pasta sauces.
Some people think of stinging nettles as the ultimate spring tonic. "Nothing beats nettle anything," said Jeremy Faber, owner of Seattle-based Foraged & Found Edibles, a popular purveyor of wild things that sells 8,000 pounds of nettles every year during the season that lasts from February to June.
Here's the best way to gather and prepare nettles:
- If you're going to harvest your own nettles, make sure to wear gloves. They really do sting. (If you get hit, wash the area with soap and water as soon as possible and apply a paste of baking soda and water.)
- Snip only the top portion of the plant, avoiding the woody stems.
- If you harvest in a public park, make sure they don't spray weed killer, and that foraging is allowed.
- A large plastic bag is ideal from getting nettles from the fields to the kitchen.
- If DIY foraging isn't your thing, look for nettles at farmers markets. A large bag of roughly 8 cups sells for $4.50 at the University District Saturday market in Seattle.
- Wash the greens in cool, running water. No need to dry them, as they'll soon be plunged into boiling water.
- Blanche the greens, including tender stems, in a large kettle of boiling salted water for 1 minute. Blanching neutralizes the sting, while locking in the bright green color and nutrients.
- Drain and cool. Squeeze the water from the nettles by placing them in a tea towel and wringing it.
- At that point, think of nettles as any other tender green. Treat them like spinach, tossing them into a saute pan with garlic and olive oil, or chop finely and layer them into a lasagna. Take a cue from chefs and make a quick, nettle pesto recipe that's so tasty you'll want to use it in — and on — everything. Think ricotta-smeared toast with nettle pesto on top or a pork belly and nettle pesto pizza like they're featuring as a seasonal special at Bar del Corso in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood or Serious Pie, where nettle pesto is paired with burrata, bresola and fried garlic chips on a seasonal special.
Creating basic nettle sauce, the base for Nettle Pesto
- After blanching and squeezing 8 cups of nettles, there should be approximately 2 cups. (Like spinach and other tender greens, it cooks down considerably.) Add the nettles to a food processor with the puree blade attached or use a blender.
- Add 1 teaspoon sea salt.
- With the motor running, slowly add 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil. Blend until the mixture becomes a loose paste. If needed, add a little more olive oil.
- At this stage, you could also add 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese and pine nuts to finish the puree or you can store it for later use. If you store it in the fridge, cover the surface with a generous layer of olive oil in order to retain the color. You can also use ice cube trays to freeze it so you can enjoy the taste of spring year-round.
- Add a couple of heaping tablespoons to a pot of soup or a marinara toward the end of the cooking time or finish each bowl with a small dollop on top.
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