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.

16 Responses to “Danielle’s Meatless Monday Obsession: Nettles!”
  1. Holly says:

    Totally into this – although weirdly there are no nettles in my garden (despite there being plenty of other weeds…). Nettle soup is really nice when I do get my hands on some, or nettles in risotto. I also drink nettle tea (shop bought not homemade/ fresh) – nettle and fennel is a great combination, really cleansing and slightly less bitter than nettles on their own. I’ve never tried applying it topically, will have to try that. Pesto sounds great too!

  2. Rachael says:

    I have also found that nettle tea is pretty effective at combating mild seasonal allergies (without the drowsiness induced by other over-the-counter allergy medications).

  3. Beth says:

    Love nettles! I used to live in a housing co-op and there was a huge nettle patch right out side my door. I ate out of it all spring for several years until the grounds committee decided it had to go. (Kids kept wandering into them.) I sure did miss it. They really do make your skin glow and if you are brave and crafty you can use the fibres in the stems to make fabric. I had a friend who used them to make jewelry.

  4. Sydney says:

    This really surprised me, I’ve never even given thought to nettle leaves but that’s really interesting and cool…

    P.S- I’m so sorry for this but I have a completely unrelated question. Does anybody know where Crunchy Betty has gone? I know that there are at least a couple of readers here that also love to read the Crunchy Betty blog and I’ve noticed that she went from posting daily to radio silent for these past few months. I love to go back and forth between amazing luxury products from NMDL and fun DIY with Crunchy Betty and I’m wondering if anybody else has noticed her absence?

  5. Ally says:

    Love nettles! I just made nettle soup for the first time, it was such a treat. I like the idea of pesto or a thick sauce out of them though, thanks! Oh, I drizzled a homemade lemon cashew sauce over the soup – easy and a pretty crowd pleaser.

  6. therese says:

    Great post and great timing. I have a surprise nettle plant in my backyard. I was just trying to figure out more ways to use. Love the pesto idea. What a wild MM post.

  7. Rebecca Bailey says:

    This is so cool. I’ve seen nettles at the farmer’s market but had no idea what to do with them. Dumb question – why is it you need gloves to handle them but yet you can eat them? Is the “uppermost 4 leaves” thing because those don’t have the stingy parts?

    @Sydney – Yes, I also have noted the Crunchy Betty absence! I hope she posts something soon saying what’s up. I know bloggers have lives too (I hope nothing is wrong) but it’s hard when someone goes away and readers don’t know why. I was bummed when Fig + Sage stopped posting, and then ultimately announced they were going away for good. It feels like when a favorite friend moves away. The years of posts are still there to help newcomers, though, and the work of F + S and CB over the years is much appreciated.

  8. Beth says:

    @ Sydney-If you check out the post she did on Making Friends with Reality, I think one could make some assumptions. Maybe she has blog burnout.

  9. jule says:

    I’ll start watching out for nettles! One question: when you cut them into pesto they lose their stinginess! Or does it still tickle the mouth and tongue? At what point in the different ways of processing do nettles lose their stinginess? Thank you for the great inspiration!

  10. Thank you for the intro to Nettle leafs! I bet they would be tasty in a coconut-milk based soup or dish… coconut curry soup with nettles?!

  11. Amy says:

    You can buy dried nettles from Mountain Rose as well. I make a tea infusion with them. (Boil water, add half a cup to a quart-jar and fill with water, and let steep overnight.) It’s great for strengthening the female body, supposedly, and for anemia.

  12. Lauren says:

    Have yet to try cooking with or eating nettles, but I wanted to second Rachel’s comment that they really do help with seasonal allergies, as nettles act as a natural antihistamine. I buy capsules of freeze-dried stinging nettle and take them during allergy season. It definitely helps. I buy Eclectic Institute brand off Amazon (cheapest there). Now I want to try tomake that pesto! :)

  13. Beatrice says:

    That all sounds delicious and awesome. I’ve been getting into foraging over this past year so this is perfect timing. Do you have the pesto recipe (or is it really just that simple?!!) and how is it you can get away with using them uncooked?

  14. Sydney says:

    @Rebecca Yes I agree.. I hope everything is all and well but like you said, she has years of great posts that are full of knowledge!

    @Beth- Yeah after reading that post, I think I could understand that

  15. Danielle says:

    Wow, so many nettle-lovers out there — how nice!

    @Jule & Beatrice- On the raw pesto and stinginess, I find that after the nettles have soaked in olive oil and salt, somehow the stinging property mellows out. Likewise, after they’ve hung out to dry — tea leaves don’t burn your fingers, either. I haven’t found an explanation yet that really explains this, except from mention here and there about how either blanching or simply letting the leaves sit out (on a counter or in some olive oil) will sap them of their formic acid — the potent stuff.

    Since my little recipe is perhaps a bit thin (: I’ve found a few more online, linked below. Several do have you blanch first. So, if you’re set on getting your raw greens, just wear gloves while chopping. I usually let the pesto sit overnight so the leaves really impregnate the oil with flavor, so perhaps that’s related to the mellowing. Or, if you prefer to get all the sting out of the way from the start, try a blanch-first recipe:

    “the flavor of the nettles is fresh and clean, almost cucumbery”

    “I have entered into a culinary relationship with the nettles plant in my backyard”

    “The purpler the top leaves, the more iron the nettle has”

    @Ally- your lemon cashew drizzle over soup sounds amazing!

    @Rebecca- the uppermost leaves sting, too, but I was taught only to pick them and not the lower (older) ones because of some potentially irritant property of the more mature leaves. I forget now what it was, though, but will look into it!

    @Erin- with coconut, I love the sound of that!

  16. Moni says:



    Thought I’d share this in case you didn’t see it!

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