There is a reason stinging nettles are named as such. This plant is covered from stem to leaf with tiny white hairs that bite you good if you touch them. The pain is instantaneous, and the stinging sensation can last for hours. Those tiny white hairs on the stinging nettle are hollow, acting like miniature hypodermic needles, injecting histamines and other chemical compounds into the skin. It is this chemical mix that creates the stinging sensation; not the mere poking of the skin with the hairs.
Stinging nettle is also cursed weed by farmers, gardeners, parks staff, and especially hikers. Native throughout the western United States, it is a plant that has spread throughout the country, Europe, Asia, and Africa. But it seems especially revered in the Pacific Northwest.
So why in the world would we want to eat this? Because the leaves are a nutritional powerhouse, with deliciously light flavors of spinach and cucumber. Thankfully, once you blanch stinging nettle, its bite is muzzled; safe for consumption. (Bless that first soul who was brave enough to harvest nettles and put them in his or her mouth.)
Nettle extracts (from both the leaf and the root) are currently used to treat a variety of maladies, like benign prostate hyperplasia, arthritis, and dandruff. Nettles are high in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, calcium, and manganese. And stinging nettle is remarkably high in protein for a plant. (There is an excellent blog post about the natural history of stinging nettle on the North Cascades Institute’s website.)
All this nutrition is great, but some of it is lost once the nettle is boiled. So if you really want to get the full nutritional blast from nettles, drink a tea made from the leaves, and then use the steeped leaves for additions to soups, polenta, pesto, and even as a purée for bread.
I find stinging nettles and pasta are divine together. Others do too, as you will often see recipes pairing the two. Many cooks like to make the noodles from the blanched and puréed nettles. Others make a pesto to ladle over the top of ordinary, white pasta (substituting nettles for basil).
This recipe is a take on both. The sauce colors the pasta green, as if it the original pasta was made from nettles; and it incorporates many of the same ingredients you would use for a pesto. But instead of blending everything together, I find the texture is enhanced by leaving the Parmesan cheese and pine nuts separate.
The result is a wonderfully light, delicately flavored pasta that sings (not stings).
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
¼ lb stinging nettles
2 Tbsp butter
½ lb fettuccine
Extra virgin olive oil
½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 Meyer lemon, zested
Begin by toasting the pine nuts. Heat an oven to 300-degrees, and place pine nuts on a baking sheet in a single layer. Toast for about 15 minutes, tossing halfway. Set aside.
Now prepare the nettles. Wearing surgical gloves, remove leaves from the stalk and place in a bath of cold water. Heat a few cups of water in a large saucepan over high heat. Once the water boils, add the nettles and blanch (about 1-2 minutes). Drain nettles, reserving the liquid to enjoy as tea if you like.
Purée nettles in a food processor, then place in a small saucepan with the butter and heat on low. As butter melts, whisk in the nettles to create a thick paste. Salt the paste to taste.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta as per instructions. Once the pasta is al dente, reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water, and then drain the noodles.
Add pasta water to stinging nettle paste to thin the consistency, thereby creating a sauce. Return pasta to large pot and toss with salt and extra virgin olive oil. Now add stinging nettle sauce, half the Parmesan cheese and half the pine nuts and toss again.
Plate fettuccine and garnish with lemon zest, black pepper, and more pine nuts and Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.