Danielle’s Meatless Monday Obsession: Nettles!
Dietary leanings: My leanings go through pretty rapid and widely swinging rotations, from fruit and veggie-focused to really budget-minded cooking, to rich comfort foods, to protein gluts, to emphatically locally-inspired. (The last part has meant a whole lot of root vegetables and soup lately.) It definitely depends a lot on the weather.
Ingredient: Nettles. Yep, stinging nettles.
Known health benefits: Widely used in various herbal healing traditions, the lowly nettle is extremely rich in iron, as well as vitamins A and C, potassium, phosphorus and sulfur. Among its most helpful properties, herbalists refer to it as a powerful “blood purifier” and recognize its use in generally stimulating organ function, as well as in balancing various conditions related to excess fluid, from nasal congestion to water retention to diarrhea. Nettle tea, whether drunk or applied topically, is also an age-old remedy for rheumatism and for skin conditions including acne and eczema. Like the homeopathic remedy “Urtica” (made from nettles), the stingy plant is also used in traditional western herbalism to alleviate minor burns, usually in tea form.
More modern research (at places like UC Berkeley, Universita di Pisa, Baskent University, Universitaetsklinik Essen) has identified links between the compounds found in nettle plants and improved inflammation resistance, decreased blood pressure, diarrhea relief, strengthened defense against bacteria such as E. Coli and Streptococcus and prostate health.
My favorite way to eat it: Pesto! It never would have occurred to me to eat nettle leaves if I hadn’t done some volunteer work on a little farm in the lonely mountains of central France. There I quickly learned how to make “pesto a l’ortie” from the nettles that literally carpeted the surrounding meadows. It became my go-to condiment: instead of salting or buttering, I pestoed. Crusty bread, pasta or rice dishes… buckwheat crepes!
As an added benefit, pesto means you don’t have to cook the leaves, as you would for most other preparations, so no nutrients are lost in the heating process. For my simple take on pesto, just chop the nettle leaves as finely as you like (while wear gloves), add salt to taste and cover with plenty of olive oil. To add interest, blend the nettles with other aromatics or leafy veggies – arugula, spinach, basil or mint go very nicely. If you’re into home canning and preserving, the pesto comes as welcome fresh flavor during the winter months, especially yummy for accenting soups and stews. You can easily dry the whole leaves, too, and then crumble them into an herbal tea.
Besides pesto, nettle leaves can be cooked and incorporated into recipes more or less wherever you would use spinach or other dark greens. I’ve done quiches, casseroles, pastas and pizzas. For a zippy cold beverage, you can make an unusual twist on sun tea by submerging whole leaves in glass jars and letting the brew “steep” in the sunshine. Pour it over ice and punch up the flavor with some lemon or your favorite sweetener.
Of course, the only “catch” is that, for city-dwellers, coming up with a bunch of nettles can be peculiarly challenging, given what hardy and adaptable plants they are. If you’re comfortable doing a little foraging, you can usually find nettles growing in iron-rich soil. (Apparently, this is why they can regularly be found lining railroad tracks and disused structures, where iron has leeched into the soil. By all means, avoid any foraging in areas near man-made structures where you suspect anything else has been leeching!) If you do pick or grow your own nettles, pluck only the uppermost four leaves – and remember your gloves.