Farmer Kate stumbles down a ravine backward that borders the Pescadero creek. She trips, she falls, she screams. Farmer Jeff and I come running over thinking Kate has broken her back. But no, she has just landed in a whole patch of nettles which are stinging her with every little move.
"The bad part is..." she says while lying still looking up at us looking down at her. "I've just fallen into nettles and they are stinging me and I don't want to move until some one reaches down and helps me up..."
"The good part is..." she begins as we carefully lift her up avoiding the angry nettle patch. "The good part is – it's nearly Spring!" And this does call for celebration because soon the whole farm will be bursting in flowers and buzzing with bees and just looking magical again.
It's not that the kale, cabbage, and broccolini haven't been inspiring this Winter, it's just that nettle shoots are always a sign of the changing seasons.
Red welts develop on her arms, back of neck, and side of face in front of our very eyes. She likens the sting to red ant bites. Which is not suprising since the same stinging formic acid in red ants is also in the fuzzy hairs of this sprightly leafy plant. Not to mention oxalic acid, tartaric acid, and histamine.
We return back to the farmhouse and grab paper bags and gloves to take our revenge on the offenders. I notice the red welts on Kate's neck are still there. Nettles sting – they really sting. It's the price one pays for this little foraged plant that has miraculous curing and protective properties according to forklore, fairy tales, and modern science.
But who's to say there's not some truth in it? Can nettles protect from lightening striking if you keep some in your pocket? Will they break a magic spell if sewn into a coat? Will chickens produce more eggs if dried nettles are added to the grain? Do they help with allergies, arthritis, enlarged prostate, and other maladies?
Nutrition wise they are high in iron, vitamin C, and carontinoids. And apparently (ahem – ladies this is just for us...) they are also a diuretic and help with bloating.
I've heard it said that nettles taste fishy. To me they taste like spinach and smell like wet hay when cooked. The flavor is very mild. I can see a comparison with nori, but not fish.
I will say they do have a slightly algae like texture after being blanched and blended. Not slimy, but just more viscous than spinach puree. Any method of high heat cooking (I've blanched them here as pictured above) is the only way I know to get that stinging to stop. I monitor the cooking/blanching process and test the nettles along the way to see if the painful part has passed. It normally takes about 45 seconds if blanched.
Blanching greens in salted water and shocking them after in ice water helps to lock in chloroform and it also helps green veggies or purées to stay greener longer even when reheated. That's a restaurant tip. Just about anything green and cooked that you get on your plate in restaurant will have been blanched and iced before being reheated.
So how does one pick nettles? There's some Scottish lore to this: if you are a "man of mettle" you shouldn't have any problems swiping them up with your bare hands. I say put some gloves on and pick the new bright green tips. When nettles start to flower the leaves get tough again.
Once you get a whole large grocery paper bag packed of nettles tips that should make at least one quart of purée. And if you make a whole batch of purée then there are lots of possibilities: soup, pesto, pesto pizza!, chevre beurre monté nettle sauce, pasta, potatoes with nettles and hot bacon vinaigrette.... you get the idea.
Nettle Pesto Pizza with Delicata Squash & Bacon
It's easy to make big batches of nettle purée and freeze it then use how you like. And although normally I make pesto by hand in a mortar and pestle, for pizza I wanted something a little more sauce-y so I opted to mix nettle purée to the other ingredients.
Nettle Pizza Pesto
1 cup or 8 oz nettles blanched and blended (1/4 large paper grocery bag full of nettles)
3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Handful chopped toasted walnuts
1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra
For Pizza Dough: Simply Recipes
1 small delicata squash unpeeled, cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds unpeeled
4 thick-cut bacon slices, cooked and cut thick or chopped as you like
3 oz shaved manchego cheese (you can use whatever you like! Chevre! Mozarella!)
1 Handfull arugula
For 8oz of nettle purée you will need about 1/4 packed large paper grocery bag of fresh nettles.
To blanch: carefully with tongs or gloves put nettles, leaves only, in salted boiling water until stinging stops. This will take at least 45 seconds. Shock nettles in ice water to stop the cooking and squeeze them dry of all water by placing them in a chinois and pressing down hard or in a kitchen towl and wringing them out. Blend nettles pulsing on and off in a blender or cuisiart with olive oil to form a chunky purée.
Mix (by hand or in a mortal & pestle) the garlic, a big handful of toasted walnuts, and 1/3 cup grated parmesan. Add this mixture to the nettle purée. Add more olive oil if necessary and salt to taste. This base pizza pesto should have the consistency of a bumpy tomato purée.
Nettle pesto will oxidize. To slow the browning process pour a 'float' of olive oil over the pesto before refigerating if it doesn't get all used up.
For the pizza dough: I used a quick rise yeast here. I prefer using a wild captured sourdough starter and I'm making a new starter right now. If you would like my recipe for sourdough pizza from natural starter email me.
I used Elise's recipe at Simply Recipes which for this pizza. (She always has good well tested recipes.)
To Assemble: This is the fun part! Get the oven HOT! Crank it up to at least 500˚F and put your pizza stone in! (you can cook this just on a baking sheet too). Roll the dough or toss it the air or do whatever you do to make it 1/4-inch thick or thinner if you like. Make it round, free form, square, or whatever!
If you are using a pizza spatula then dust it with a little cornmeal or dust your baking sheet. Place the dough on top. Give it a little test shake to make sure it's not going to stick before slathering with nettle pesto. If the dough does stick you can always lift it up side by side and dust with a little more cornmeal, but this is no fun. Add squash rings, bacon, and cheese on top. Slide the pizza off the spatula and onto the stone with a quick shake of the wrist. Or just keep in on the baking sheet.
Cook for about 10 minutes until crust is brown and cheese in bubbling.