Grasping at Nettles
Updated: May 23, 2019
I can say without hesitation that I typically avoid grasping nettles. But it is nettle season after all, and I have been intrigued over the years by the increasing use of nettle as a culinary ingredient. The little forest we have on our property is ringed by them. When you mow over them they smell wonderful. But if you touch them, the little filaments that cover their stems and leaves sting you with nasty biochemical toxins. Antihistamine creams can help (or rubbing nearby dock leaves on your skin), but the stinging, numbing sensation can last for hours.
The internet abounds with information about the health benefits of nettle—flushing toxins, as a diuretic, strengthening bones, walking on water. Research that yourself (hint: one of these benefits is incorrect).
There is a phrase, from England. If you “grasp the nettle,” it means that you are addressing a challenging situation bravely and boldly. Evidently, if you grasp a nettle firmly, all the little stinging filaments will lay flat, and not sting you. But, if you touch the nettle lightly, it is another story.
But the Brits can be quirky. I know, because I am married to one. In Dorsett each year there is a “Nettle Festival” (Peter Rinearson, I am using quotation marks correctly here), where Brits challenge each other to eat raw nettles. I understand they also drink copious amounts of beer. According to Wikipedia, “In 2017 the Overall Champion was Jonathan Searle from Solihull who munched his way through 70 feet of nettles whilst the Women's Prize went to Kate Ribton of Stoke St Gregory, in Somerset, who got through 28 feet (8.5 m) of the stinging beauties.” Doesn’t that just sound like something the Brits would do?
So, I dare you! Grasp that nettle boldly and see what happens!
Ok, I double-dog dare you!
But I will not follow. I went out on a spring morning intending to harvest the top three leaves and stems of young nettles. I used plastic disposal gloves to pick my nettles, thinking that it would be a good idea to maintain my manual dexterity, but they stung right though. Evidently I suffered from a tepid grasp...for days.
But here is what happens after you have washed nettles and parboil them a minute or so: all the stingers melt away, and the result is a highly fragrant and delicious herb/vegetable, kind of like a cross between spinach and asparagus. I picked a huge bowl (probably about 2 1/2 pounds), thinking that they would shrink down to nothing, the way that spinach does. The leaves shrink a little, but the stems just get flaccid, and they are quite stringy. But if you chop them up a little they work fine for the dish I am about to propose.
The process: Fresh nettles, parboil, shock nettles in ice, drain and chop them, process them, and voila!
All-Purpose Nettle Paste
Once cleaned, parboiled and chopped, place the nettles into the bowl of a large food processor. Add at least a cup of olive oil, ½ cup of walnuts, the juice of half a lemon, 5 smooshed cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of salt and 2/3 cup of shredded parmesan. Blend it all together until it is a smooth paste. If it seems too thick, add more olive oil. You will end up with prodigious amounts of nettle paste, which can be used in a number of ways:
Use it like a pesto, by tossing about a half-cup of the paste with pasta.
Use it as a filling for ravioli, which can be oh-so-easy if you use wonton wrapper.
Use it as a spread for crackers.
Spice it up with red pepper and spread it over meat or fish.
Freeze some for later – be sure to label it.
Give it a try! It’s still not too late. Once the nettles mature, they are not so good for eating. When life gives you nettles, make nettle paste!