Nettles, it seems, have entered the mainstream. No one questions their appearance on restaurant menus anymore and it is increasingly easy to find them at farmers markets. This year, Triple T Farms of east Santa Rosa was the first vendor to bring them to local farmers markets. Now several farmers have them.
Although nettles seem like a new discovery, something that foodies and foragers have brought to us, they actually have a long culinary history. They have been used for centuries in both food and drink. Nettle tisanes, cordials and tinctures are thought to have healing properties that help with seasonal allergies and a range of other ailments, including insect stings, arthritis, anemia, gout, diabetes and all manner of male health issues. Nettles increase lactation in nursing mothers, have been used in herbal charms and can be used on the hair, to make it glisten and to control dandruff.
Nettles also are delicious and full of nutrients, including a substantial amount of protein, along with Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, potassium and other trace nutrients, which our human ancestors knew intuitively. Whenever I use them, I wonder who discovered this, who first understood that their stinging quality — due to tiny hollow fibers that shoot irritants into our skin when we touch them raw — would vanished with heat.
For years, I have blanched nettles in water before cooking with them but am now discarding this practice, depending on what I am making, thanks to Nancy Skall of Middleton Farm, who has some of the finest nettles around, broad leaves already off their stems. When she makes nettle frittata, she puts the nettles directly into the egg mixture and the heat takes care of the rest. One of my favorite ways to enjoy nettles is in soup and now I just plunge them into the hot stock, happy that I am not losing any of their goodness.
For nettle recipes from this column's archives, visit "Eat This Now" at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com, where you'll find my favorite nettle soup with several variations and fresh nettle pasta with nettle butter and dry Jack cheese.
In this recipe, the nettles must be blanched before using, but you can do so in the water in which you will cook the polenta and thus save all the good nutrients that otherwise would be lost.
<strong>Nettle Pesto with Creamy Polenta</strong>
Makes 4 to 6 servings
<em>— Kosher salt</em>
<em> 4 cups, loosely packed, nettle leaves</em>
<em> 1 cup coarse-ground polenta or cornmeal</em>
<em> — Boiling water, as needed</em>
<em> 3 to 4 garlic cloves (preferably fresh spring garlic), peeled and crushed</em>
<em> 1/2 cup Italian parsley leaves, chopped</em>
<em> 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed</em>
<em> 4 tablespoons butter</em>
<em> 1 cup grated dry Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano or similar cheese</em>
<em> 3 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted (optional, see Note below)</em>
Pour 4 cups of water into a large heavy pot and season fairly generously with salt, about
2 to 3 teaspoons. Bring to a boil over high heat and when the water reaches a rolling boil, add the nettles, stir and then use tongs to remove the nettles, shaking off excess water before transferring them to a clean tea towel. Let cool slightly and then roll the nettle into the tea towel and press out as much water as you can. Set aside.