Last week, after many weekends of travel and play, I (finally) started hacking at some of the weeds in my unruly and frequently neglected herb garden. Along the side of the house, where echinacea and lemon balm and comfrey flourish in a civilized and graceful manner, there grew a wild and extravagantly disruptive plant. It was prickly, pokey and significantly taller than me. Was that really my tiny little nettles plant, scarcely larger than a loaf of bread when I planted it last summer?
Indeed it was, in all its stinging glory. After foolishly trying to rip some up with my bare hands (hashtag owwwwwww), I fetched my gloves, consulted my herbal almanac, and got the lowdown on gathering and using nettles.
In spite of the prickly, painful-with-naked-hands harvesting, nettles are entirely edible, though they do require some taming. The sting comes from tiny hairs on the plant that contain formic acid and histamine, which have significant health benefits like easing arthritis pain and calming allergies. To harvest, cut them near the bottom of the stem with scissors, and use gloves—trust me on this one.
The tiny, painful hairs on the leaves are broken down when juiced or pureed, so you can drop a few leaves into smoothies or add to greens when juicing. Or hold them by the stems and dip them into boiling water for 30 seconds, to remove the sting and make them easier to handle in recipes. Once dipped and tamed, the leaves can be easily stripped from the stems.
I decided to try them in pesto, since my basil was in danger of becoming similarly unruly. I also added a handful of purslane—another weed that probably grows in your garden—for omega-3 fats and minerals, and to add a citrusy brightness. (You can just as easily leave it out, with the same delicious results.)
Nettles and purslane grow wild in Colorado; if you have neither in your backyard, be sure to gather them from areas that you know have not been sprayed. You can also find both nettles and purslane at many farmer’s markets. This savory, bright pesto freezes well, so you can enjoy it in the darkest depths of winter.
Garlicky Nettles Pesto
Makes about 1 pint
1 large bunch nettles, yielding 1 cup leaves
1/2 cup purslane (optional)
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup raw pine nuts, cashews or macadamia nuts
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Asiago cheese, or 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1. Remove roots from bottom of nettles and discard. If using purslane, discard any root ends, wash thoroughly and set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Remove from heat; with gloved hands, hold nettles by stems and dip into hot water for 30 seconds. Remove from water, let cool for a minute, then squeeze out as much water as possible. Strip off 1 cup of leaves.
3. Combine nettles, purslane, basil, nuts and garlic in a food processor or Vitamix. Puree until well combined. With the food processor or Vitamix running, add olive oil, continuing to process until smooth. Add cheese or nutritional yeast, and pulse just to combine.
4. Taste pesto and add lemon juice as needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve.