This week I had an amazing dish at Higgin’s in Portland. It was nettle pesto served with hazelnuts that was so flavorful! It was worth every bloaty minute of the carb coma I had from the pasta. If you are ever in Portland, drop in for an amazing meal.
Which leads to……
As Spring returns to the Pacific Northwest, one of the first signs is Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica) coming up in damp areas. On our land, we see them first in the draw that goes into our well head. We get some amazing nettles there. These grow low to the ground and are typically lush and deep green. Nettles are one plant that is hard to misidentify – all it takes is a brush against them, and you know it is that season. Most people react to Nettles with the feeling of a warm stinging sensation, that is itchy. However, a few will have a deeper reaction, and get weepy blisters (Nettle Dermatitis). If you are an unlucky one, get someone else to pick for you. Once cooked, the nettles don’t react this way.
In our upper field, in an area that has been disturbed, the first ones are popping up in sunny patches, where rotting logs and dirt sit.
In summer the plants will grow tall (up to 7 feet high), and become scrawny, with just a few leaves. They lose their deep green color and go to a pale, washed out green, with white-ish tops. They still sting however, and are harder to avoid when tall. In Spring you can step on them, and not worry about your legs.
Learning to pick them is a worthy adventure. Bring a pair of gloves, dipped ones work best. I wear Carhartt gloves when I work the fields, and do foraging of this type. Add in a picking container (sure, a woven basket is what the hippy chicks would use, but a Ziploc tub with lid or a brown paper shopping bag on dry days works even better). Wear long pants, closed toe shoes and long sleeves to avoid getting “warmed up” while picking. Some sexy overalls goes well……
Pick in the cool of the morning. It is easier to see, and the plants are hydrated. This applies to picking of all greens (and herbs) – the earlier in the day, the better the quality. If you must pick later in the day, do it before sunset so the plants have time to cool down a bit from the day.
If you wish to dehydrate nettles for use all year-long (it makes a great tea), place the leaves in a large, clean brown paper bag and stash in an area to dry, shaking every day, to distribute them. You can use a dehydrator on its lowest setting, but I find the brown bag method works better and you preserve all oils, color and texture better without heat. Paper bags compost well afterwards as well.
I have two recipes to enjoy. One for dry leaves, the other for fresh leaves – in a backpacking and camping friendly meal.
Nettle Leaf Tea
- 1 tsp dried nettles
- 1 cup hot water
- Raw honey, if desired
Pour water over the nettles leaves, let infuse for 5 minutes. Strain tea, over sip with the leaves at the bottom. Sweeten if desired.
- 8 ounces pasta of choice, cook time under 7 minutes
- 1⁄4 cup toasted finely diced pine nuts, walnuts, hemp seeds or hazelnuts
- 1⁄2 cup shelf stable parmesan cheese
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup packed freshly picked stinging nettle leaves (urtica dioica) (discard stems)
- 1 1⁄4 tsp granulated garlic
Pack the pasta in a sandwich bag, the nuts and garlic in a small bag, the Parmesan cheese in a snack bag and the olive oi in a leak proof container.
In your pot bring a ¼ cup water to a boil, add your nettle leaves, cover tightly and let steam a couple of minutes (lower your stove’s flame). Drain off any water left, then chop the leaves as finely as you can. Add the olive oil to the nut bag, then add the nettles. Stir well and put aside.
Bring 4 cups water to a boil in your pot, add the pasta and cook for time on package. Drain carefully. Add pesto to pasta as desired, top liberally with the cheese.
The sauce can also be made at home, process in a blender or food processor till smooth. Feel free to use fresh Parmesan cheese if done this way.