Springtime Nettles in the Pacific Northwest
How lucky are we to live in such a magical landscape? One that has a plentiful supply of wonderful ingredients that sneak up, even in our yards, that offer their flavors without the hard work of cultivation. Nettles are a perfect example. Every year they tickle their way through the grass at the edge of my yard and manage to find their way into my kitchen.
I often add fresh nettles into my soup; their supple earthy flavor blends perfectly with the richness of my homemade soup stock. There are many things that scream springtime to me, yet deep chicken broth, simple nettles, and a heavy hand of fresh grated Parmesan makes me feel home. A great way to preserve your nettles for other amazing dishes is nettle pesto. Toss it with pasta, dollop on your chicken, or bake it with fresh oysters; it really is quite simple.
The word pesto, is derived from the Italian word pestare, which means to pound or crush. Traditionally, pesto would be made with a mortar and pestle, but do not feel bad using a food processor; just remember not to blend too smooth because it is wonderful when a bit chunky.
This is a basic pesto recipe with nettles subbing in for basil. You can use basil in its place, or parsley or some other nice green thing. You can also use different nuts; the addition of walnuts make a good pesto with nettles. I prefer Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but any good hard cheese will do. Since you've blanched the nettles, they will not oxidize and turn brown easily, so you can store this pesto in the fridge for up to a week, maybe more. If you want to be sure to preserve their color, add a bit of fresh lemon juice..
Ingredients (do not be afraid to play with quantities)
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
2 heaping tablespoons toasted pine nuts (pistachios or walnuts are great substitutes)
2 tablespoons grated cheese (any hard cheese will do)
1/2 to 2/3 cup blanched, chopped nettles
Olive oil (use the good stuff)
Smidge of fresh lemon juice (this is optional but helps keep your nettles bright green)
Pesto is best made with a mortar and pestle, thus the name, which means "pound." You can make this in a food processor, but it will not be the same. First add the toasted pine nuts and crush lightly -- as they are roundish, they will jump out of your mortar if you get too vigorous. If you are using a processor, pulse a couple times.
Add the garlic to the mortar, then pound it all enough so that the pieces don't fly around.
Add the salt, cheese and the nettles and commence pounding. Mash everything together, stirring with the pestle and mashing well so it is all fairly uniform. With a food processor, run the machine so everything combines, but isn't a smooth paste. You want it with some texture.
Start adding olive oil. How much? Depends on how you are using your pesto. If you are making a spread, maybe 2 tablespoons. If a pasta sauce, double that or more. Either way, you add 1 tablespoon at a time, pounding and stirring to incorporate it. If you are using the processor, drizzle it in a little at a time. Serve as a spread on bread, as an additive to a minestrone, as a pasta sauce, or as a dollop on fish or poultry.