Thursday, August 6, 2015

Stinging Nettle Pesto

Pesto is traditionally made from basil, pine-nuts, olive oil, garlic, lemon, Parmigiana cheese, salt and pepper. Tossing a few ingredients into a food processor, and pressing "blend," is about as easy as cooking gets; and so pesto is a great opportunity for beginner cooks to play around. Basil need not be the only base ingredient. Combine it with others, or replace it completely. Spinach, sundried tomatoes, and garlic scapes are some of my favourite substitutes. Click here for a list of other creative pesto ideas.

As long you achieve a "dollop-able" type texture you've done it right. Keep tasting as you go. Too lemon-y? Add a little more oil and blend again. Too salty? Add a little more of the base ingredient to disperse the salt. Too wet and creamy? Add more nuts. Too chunky? Add more oil and lemon juice. And so on... Intuiting cooking - using recipes as a guide rather than a religion - is better for long-term skill development. It teaches a person to think beyond dogmatic instructions and see the crossover between dishes. For example, say you're craving something with olives. If you know how to make a basic pesto, all you need to do is replace the basil with olives, omit the cheese, maybe add some capers or anchovies and voila: olive tapenade. Exercising your intuition in the kitchen will blur the lines between dishes and teach you how take the "idea" of something and use it as the base for another. This is something I stress most when teaching anyone to cook. Go through your cookbook + recipe phase, and then remove the training wheels and cruise on your own.

Keeping this in mind, when I came across a patch of stinging nettle plants in the forests of Stratford, Ontario, I knew I could make them into a lovely pesto. Stinging nettle is amazingly healthy. It is used to treat joint-pain, urinary-tract infections, and works as a diuretic. It's chalk full of iron and calcium, and rich in vitamins A, D, and K. It's like spinach's wild and prickly cousin. Nettle grows all around Canada (urban areas included) and can be identified by its bright-green, tapered leaves, and small, fuzzy white flowers. Its leaves, stems, and roots are equally edible. For more information on foraging your own nettles, click here. Unfortunately, they get a bad reputation for their potential to injure; but proper handling them will ensure that you are fine. Grabbing their stalks with bare hands is a one way ticket to inflammation and itching, so just wear gloves! Pull from the base, brush the dirt off the root and stem, and double-bag for safe transport home. Wearing your gloves again, give the plant a quick rinse, and then plunge into boiling water and blanch for a few minutes. This will render them completely safe to use in any recipe. It's a very simple solution. Like spinach, they will wilt and compact in hot water, thus reducing your yield. In my experience, about 6 mature plants gave me a little over a cup of cooked, packed nettle leaves and stems. Don't throw out the hot water though, as it makes a wonderful, healing tea. Enjoy a cup on the spot, and then save the rest in the fridge to make iced or flavored tea later. Continue on with your pesto, using the following recipe as a guide:

Stinging Nettle Pesto 
  • 1 cup, cooked and drained stinging nettle
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted stovetop in a pan or on a baking sheet in oven
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon 
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Parmigiana cheese, grated (use nutritional yeast if vegan) 
  • *Optional: a handful of basil 

Add everything except oil, salt and pepper, to a food processor and pulse until you achieve a wet crumble. Slowly add in oil, a tablespoon at a time, until you achieve a pesto-y texture. Season with salt and pepper. 
(Makes 1.75 cups) 
Serving ideas: 
- Mix a into a pot of freshly cooked and drained pasta, with a little pasta water to get things moving
- Serve on crostini as an appetizer 
- Use as a sandwich spread, in place of mustard or mayonnaise 
- Use as a dip for vegetables 
- Stuff into cherry tomatoes or olives as an appetizer 
- Spoon into an ice cube trays and freeze for future pesto

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