Wild Stinging Nettles

For unsuspecting children--and adults!--who venture into forested areas and make contact unexpectedly with a patch of stinging nettles, the experience is unforgettable and probably unpleasant. The takeaway? Not wanting to experience the sting of wild nettles ever again since contact can result in discomfort lasting longer than a day.

On the other hand, I have worked with cooks who, for some reason, don't feel the stinging sensation of nettles on their hands. These are the individuals I'd ask to clean and prepare the nettles for blanching, once they'd arrived in the kitchen for work. Unless you're among the lucky few who've shown an inexplicable resistance to the sting of nettles, I recommend gloves. After they've been blanched in boiling water, nettles lose their sting and can be pureed, added to a soup or folded into fritter batter. 

Wild stinging nettles are found in spring, in cool wet forested areas at lower elevation in the western United States, including on the coast, in valleys and in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Often, they grow in clusters, in meadows and lightly wooded areas.

The stinging hairs on the leaves and stems are called trichomes, and they inject histamines, causing a stinging sensation. For this reason, nettles should be harvested with gloves and scissors, and collected in a bag.  Clean them more thoroughly once you're back in the kitchen, again wearing gloves. The foraging experience, although a great adventure, may not sound like much fun. But once you've enjoyed a nettle pesto pizza, you just might change your mind. Depending where you live, you may not have to travel far to find nettles; it's not uncommon to find them growing on the roadside, just off a forested area. 

Wild nettles and their stems can be dried to make an excellent tea.  Steep them in simmering water for several minutes and add a touch of sugar.  Come spring, I find myself craving this wild plant, which is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium and magnesium.  For me, the hearty texture and flavor or nettles is a harbinger of spring.

If I'm not sipping my nettles, however, pesto is my preferred use of this ingredient. Substituting hazelnuts for the more traditional pine nut is my Oregonian twist. 

makes about one cup pesto, or enough for 2 to 3 pizzas

INgredients

4 ounces nettle leaves, cleaned (a few small stems are fine, or remove all stems for a very smooth pesto) 

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup lightly toasted hazelnuts

2 cloves garlic

Finely chopped zest and juice of 1 lemon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, or a pinch of cayenne for additional heat

Pizza or flatbread dough

 

PROCEDURE

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat to between 500 and 550 degrees F, or as high as it will go. Place a large pot of generously salted water over high heat and bring to a boil.  Fill a bowl with cold water and a few ice cubes and set aside.

When the water comes to a boil, add the nettles and blanch for 30 seconds. Drain and immediately add the nettles to the cold water.  When they are cool enough to handle, use your hands to squeeze them dry and discard any water remaining.

Add the nettles to the bowl of a food processor with the cheese, oil, nuts, garlic lemon zest and juice. Pulse several times, then let the motor run for a few minutes until the puree is very smooth. Add a small amount of cold water if the pesto is too thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary with salt and pepper.  Transfer the finished puree into a container with a tight fitting lid, to keep out excess oxygen, which will cause the pesto to lose its vibrant green color.  Refrigerate until ready to use.

To make pizza or flatbread, let the dough come to room temperature before stretching the dough out onto a peel or the back of a baking pan lightly dusted with flour or cornmeal. (Rather than spending the time it takes to shape a perfectly round pizza, I like to make oblong flatbreads.) 

Once the dough is stretched, spread a thin layer of pesto over it, leaving about 1-inch all the way around the edge. Add other ingredients as desired, keeping in mind that less is more when it comes to pizza and preventing the crust from getting soggy by overloading it with toppings.  Caramelized onions, another cheese such as mozzarella, or sliced tomatoes are good choices.

Bring the peel or baking sheet holding the pizza down to the same level as the hot pizza stone and slide the dough onto it.  Quickly close the oven door and allow the pizza to bake until the crust around the edge is dark brown and the bottom is crispy, using a spatula to rotate it once while it bakes. When it is ready, remove the pizza from the oven and allow it to cool a few minutes before slicing and serving.