Since someone was brave (or crazy) enough to figure out that stinging nettles – a pesky and painful weed-like plant – are edible, they deserve a moment to shine on the culinary stage. Although nettles sound like adventurous eating, all it takes to remove the stinging venom is boiling them in water for a few minutes before proceeding with a recipe.
Their flavor is often compared to spinach, but nettles have a mellow herbaceousness that particularly makes for a tasty pesto. Super nutritious, nettles boast the highest levels of protein and plant-digestible iron of any other green and are high in vitamins A, C, and D as well as calcium, potassium, and manganese and have been used for centuries in various medicinal ways.
Today, I’m making a nettle-galangal pesto. You might be thinking, isn’t pesto made with basil, but really, pesto can be made from anything — it doesn’t even have to be a green thing. I’ve enjoyed pesto made with mint, parsley, cilantro, pea shoots and other herbs, even tomatoes. So why not make it with nettles! The Italians actually make a nettle pesto in springtime called pesto d’urtica.
1 cup blanched nettles (6 cups fresh)
2-3 garlic cloves
1-2 slicea fresh galangal
1/2 cup hemp hearts or walnuts, toasted
1/4 cup grated hard cheese
1/2 – 3/4 cup good-quality olive oil
Salt to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add some salt. Using tongs or gloves, transfer the nettles into the boiling water. (Although it has been said that nettles lose their sting pretty quickly after being picked, I choose not to test that theory as I remember far too many painful nettles stings as a kid playing in the woods). Stir around and boil for 1-2 minutes and then transfer the nettles to a colander to drain. Once cooled, press out excess moisture and transfer to a food processor.
Toast the hemp hearts (or walnuts) over medium-low heat, turning as needed to prevent scorching. Once toasted, transfer to the food processor. Add the garlic, galangal and cheese and process everything until smooth. With the machine running, pour in 1/2 cup of olive oil. If it seems to thick, add a tablespoon of olive oil at a time but no more than another 1/4 cup total. Transfer the pesto to a bowl and season with salt to taste. Optional, squeeze a little fresh lemon juice over the pesto, stirring to incorporate.
Serve the pesto as a spread on bread or crackers, as an additive to a hearty soup, as a pasta or pizza sauce or as a dollop on fish or poultry. Store any unused pesto in the fridge, topped with olive oil to keep the air out.
Once the pesto was made, I was still feeling a little adventurous, so I cut the tops off of a few tomatoes, scooped out their centers and stuffed them with nettle pesto. I baked them at 350 degrees for 25 minutes in a muffin pan so the tomatoes would stay fairly upright. Pretty tasty.
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