Among the many plants that I love, the weedy Urtica dioica is without a doubt one of my favourites. In British Columbia’s lower mainland, March and April are probably the best months to gathering young nettles for food purposes because the leaves form gritty growths called cystoliths during later stages of growth. Interestingly, Cannabis sativa forms cystolith hairs as well, or so I’m told.
I once had a teacher who would deftly pluck nettle leaves with his bare hands, carefully fold a leaf into an envelope to avoid the stinging hairs, and slowly chew the raw plant. I, on the other hand, am far from being that cool, and prefer to wear dish gloves when harvesting nettles. Apparently when a nettle leaf is grasped firmly, the stinging hairs are less likely to hurt than if one brushes the plant accidentally.The British expression “to grasp the nettle” is inspired by U. dioica, and it basically means facing a previously ignored problem head-on.
I’ve done a lot of deferring of problems through the senseless pace of the past year, particularly those that relate to personal well-being. This April, slowing down enough to gather a few nettles gave me an excuse to share soul-filling food with people that I care about. It also gave me pause to acknowledge the arrival of life-giving spring and consider the ways in which the intractable animal parts of our human selves are inexorably tied to the wildness in nature that we are often so furious to quash. With that windy preamble, I hope you enjoy the following recipe!
Painless stinging nettle pesto
1-2 cups of stinging nettle leaves, stems removed
1-2 cups of chopped parsley, stems included
1/2 cup walnuts, sunflower seeds, pecans, pine nuts or a combination
2-3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup olive oil
Cook the stinging nettle in 1/2 inch of steaming water until it just begins to wilt (1 minute or so). Overcooking will make it lose the leaves lose their nutritional goodness and flavour. Drain the leaves and save the cooking water.
Throw all ingredients into a blender or food processor, and add the nettle cooking water, plain water or lemon juice as necessary for the blades to turn fluidly.
– Stinging nettle portabello mushroom pizza: Using a portabello mushroom instead of a dough pizza crust,* chop off mushroom stems and spread the pesto on the flat side of the mushrooms. Add your favourite toppings (mine are zucchini, artichoke hearts, olives and cherry tomatoes) and bake mushrooms on a greased cookie sheet in a 365F oven for 10-15 min.
* The idea for using a portabello mushroom “crust” comes from a Vegetarian Times magazine I read years ago
– Stinging nettle pesto pasta: Use pesto instead of tomato sauce, and add other seasonal vegetables for colour and texture. The earthy flavour of kamut pasta is a particularly satisfying match for the garlicky stinging nettle pesto.