Nettle Pesto, a healthy twist to the classic pasta sauce using foraged nettles. How best to harvest them late Spring and prepare them without being stung. This sauce also happens to be vegan.

pasta noodles tossed in green nettle sauce and topped with fried nettles

Healthy Vegan Nettle Recipe

This is one of the family’s favourite nettle recipes and what’s more, it’s full of healthy nutrients. It’s vegan, particularly high in iron, packed with other minerals and vitamins, plus it’s a great detox for the liver. So it’s the most delicious spring clean in a pasta bowl! As nettles are foraged, it’s the perfect meal on a budget too.

What do Nettles Taste Like?

Nettles don’t sting when eaten and their taste is good.  They taste ‘green’, that chlorophyll herbal sensation with a slightly sweet aftertaste. They’re a cross between parsley and spinach, I think.  But I’ll leave you to taste for yourself.

nettles growing in the forest

When and How to Harvest the Best Nettles

The best time to forage and harvest nettles is late Spring to early Summer.  This is when the leaves are young, full of their vitamins and less likely to be spoiled.

Most important, even if obvious, is to harvest nettles using gloves. They’re not called stinging nettles for nothing!  If you do get stung, quickly ease the rash with dock leaves – almost always found growing nearby.

Ideally, pick nettles that are quite high (you don’t want them “sprayed” by animals). It’s also best to pick the younger nettle leaves since the older, outer leaves can be quite bitter – as are the more purple leaves, so avoid them too. The greener the leaves, the better. Also avoid nettles when in flower.


Never pick nettles from the side of the road, as they are polluted and also in danger of being sprayed by herbicides.  It’s best to get them far into the forest, as nature intended.

nettle pesto tossed into spaghetti with green asparagus

As this pesto is best served in Spring, serve with fresh asparagus also in season – it’s delicious! The sauce is gluten free but if following a strict GF diet, be careful of the type of pasta you serve with it.

How Long to Cook Nettles?

First you’ll need to wash them. As they’re still stinging nettles wear gloves in the initial stages. Blanch the leaves in salted boiling water for two minutes to clean and remove their sting.  By adding salt, it retains their green colour.

Read the step-by-step recipe instructions below for more details.

How Long Can Nettle Pesto Keep?

Like classic pesto, this vegan nettle variation is handy to have in the fridge.  It can keep for 3-4 days (just keep topping it up with olive oil after use) and it freezes well, too.  Pesto is SO quick and easy to make, it’s a crying shame if you buy that mass market stuff sold in jars at the supermarket.

washing nettles with gloves and blanching

How to Prepare Nettles

Once back home, keep your gloves on while handling the leaves, as the nettles still have their sting!

Remove all the leaves from the stalks then soak them in cold water for a few minutes.

Still with gloves on, plunge the nettle leaves into salted boiling water for 2 minutes.  The salt keeps the green colour bright.  Blanching them removes their sting.

Strain the leaves and cool.  You could reserve the cooking water (for stock, soups etc.) Once cool, squeeze out any excess water and place in a food processor or blender with the other ingredients. Add the cheese at the end.

Toss the pesto into cooked pasta.  There is no need to heat the sauce.  That way you get all the beautiful flavours oodling their way between the noodles.

More Nettle Recipes

Once the nettles are prepared, replace them for spinach or chard in this Corsican Cheese Lasagne. It’s even better for you.

Nettle Pesto with Walnuts

This is great with walnuts – plus using blanched almonds in the same way is also a great combination.

Toast the walnuts first either by dry-frying in a pan for 2-3 minutes or under the grill – it brings out their flavours. Although this nettle version of pesto does take a bit longer, it’s worth it to reap their health benefits.

The Extra Touch of Garnish

Garnish the dish with crispy nettle leaves which have been deep fried for 30 seconds in 150°C and left to drain off excess oil on kitchen paper.  That way you get Le Crunch and not a sting…

pasta ribbons with deep fried nettles tossed in nettle pesto

pasta noodles tossed in green nettle sauce and topped with fried nettles
5 from 1 vote

Nettle Pesto

Author: Jill Colonna
Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time2 mins
Total Time32 mins
Course : Main Course, Starter
Cuisine : French, Italian
Servings : 6

Description

A healthy spring clean detox to the Italian classic pesto sauce, using foraged stinging nettles.

Ingredients

  • 100 g / 3.5oz stinging nettle leaves stalks removed
  • 30 g (2tbsp) walnuts (or pine nuts) toasted
  • 3 cloves garlic core removed
  • 1 tsp sea salt (fleur de sel)
  • freshly cracked pepper
  • 200 ml / 7oz / 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

  • Keep your gloves on at this point, as the nettles still have their sting!
  • Remove all the leaves from the stalks then soak them in cold water for a few minutes.
  • Still with gloves on, blanch the leaves by plunging them into salted boiling water for 2 minutes (this removes their sting). The salt keeps the green colour bright.
  • Strain the leaves and cool. You could reserve the cooking water (for stock, soups etc.)
  • Once cool, squeeze out any excess water and place in a food processor or blender with the other ingredients.

Notes

To serve: toss the pesto into cooked pasta (see my recipe for fresh egg pasta noodles from Alsace). There is no need to heat the sauce. That way you get all the beautiful flavours and health benefits.
Garnish the dish with crispy nettle leaves which have been deep fried for 30 seconds in 150°C and left to drain off excess oil on kitchen paper.  That way you get Le Crunch and not a sting. Otherwise with fresh herbs such as parsley or chervil.
Wine Pairing: enjoy with a glass of red Bordeaux, such as a Fronsac, a chilled fruity Provençal rosé or a white chenin from the Loire.
Storage: top with a little extra olive oil and keep sealed in an airtight jar in the fridge for up to 2-3 days. The sauce also freezes well.
For non-vegans, add 2 tablespoons of grated parmesan.
Any cup volume measurements in the recipe are there as a rough guide.  Please use grams/ounces indications, as they are more precise.

This recipe was first published 9 May 2011 but is now completed updated. 

From the market

From the kitchen

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Comments (2)

5 stars
I’ve never had stinging nettles in any way (except poking my legs!) but I’m quite sure I’d love this pesto! I’m sure it’s so nutritious, too. Lovely photos too, Jill!

It’s full of good stuff in there, Christina. Now without a thyroid, I’m told to eat as many nettles as I can find!