Taming Those Wild, Stinging Backyard Greens Into Dinner

Apr 27, 2012
Originally published on April 28, 2012 12:22 pm

On a chilly grey morning I come across a big, lush patch of nettles in a Pittsburgh park. Leah Lizarondo, the food writer who brought me here, has her hands wrapped in old plastic bread bags.

Those bags are crucial because touching stinging nettles with your bare hands can be pretty unpleasant. "It's like something pricked you, like a little ant bit you, and then it starts being a little painful," said Lizarondo.

But Lizarando says she likes that element of danger when she's on a hunt for wild spring ingredients for pesto. And those weeds plaguing many backyards and parks — like dandelions, purslane, ramps and chickweed — should instead be considered a veritable grocery list, she says.

Next, we look for some garlic mustard, a tall plant with white flowers growing on top of it. "When you crush the leaf you can actually smell the garlic," says Lizarondo.

It's best to gather wild greens from areas you're familiar with, she says.

In the kitchen Lizarando gets a big pot of water boiling to blanch the nettles.
That will make them as gentle as spinach, which is exactly what they smell like after wilting in the hot water.

Lizarondo says pesto makes a great wild edibles starter dish. "There's not a lot of investment and you can actually taste the green because you're not mixing it with something else that would mask the taste," she says.

Into the food processor goes extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, roasted walnuts for body, lemon zest, fresh squeezed lemon juice, a few cloves of peeled garlic , water, and of course, wilted stinging nettles and fresh garlic mustard leaves.

Lizarondo recommends putting the pesto on warm pasta or bread. "It's lemony, it's spicy, it's definitely not a basil pesto... the character is completely different and your friends will definitely love it," she says.

And as your guests are chowing down, let them know all they need to make the dish is stinging nettles and garlic mustard. Or maybe — save that to tell them over dessert.

Recipe: Garlic Mustard and Stinging Nettle Pesto with Roasted Walnuts

Yield: About 1 1/2-2 cups

2-3 cups garlic mustard leaves
1 cup packed blanched stinging nettle leaves
3/4 cup roasted walnuts
4 cloves garlic
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 T lemon juice
zest of 1/2 a lemon (optional)

To remove the sting from the nettles, blanch them by boiling them in water with a little bit of salt for about 5 minutes. Wear gloves when harvesting and dropping them into the boiling water.

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add more oil to desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

If you are weeding this spring, there might be an extra payoff - dinner.

WESA's Larkin Page-Jacobs set out with a Pittsburgh food writer in search of wild edibles that are often considered weeds.

LARKIN PAGE-JACOBS, BYLINE: It looks a lot like mint.

LEAH LIZARONDO: It's the same color as mint, it's the same height that it grows.

PAGE-JACOBS: It's not mint. It's stinging nettles and it's a key ingredient in Leah Lizarondo's pesto. On a chilly, grey morning, we've come across a big lush patch of nettles in a Pittsburgh park, and with her hands encased in old plastic bread bags, she starts tearing them up by their roots.

(SOUNDBITE RIPPING NETTLES)

PAGE-JACOBS: Those bags are crucial because stinging nettles, they can be unpleasant.

LIZARONDO: It's like something pricked you, like a little ant bit you, and then it starts being a little painful.

PAGE-JACOBS: But Lizarondo says she likes that element of danger, which is hard to come by when cooking with plant matter.

LIZARONDO: Put it in a bag and here we to go.

PAGE-JACOBS: Great.

LIZARONDO: So let's go look for some garlic mustard. Garlic mustard, it's a tall kind of plant with white flowers growing on top of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

PAGE-JACOBS: It's best to gather wild greens from areas you're familiar with, and Lizarondo explains there's a veritable grocery list of ingredients plaguing many backyards, like this one - dandelions, the old stand by...

LIZARONDO: Purslane.

PAGE-JACOBS: Ramps.

LIZARONDO: There's also Chickweed.

PAGE-JACOBS: Back to the garlic mustard.

LIZARONDO: When you crush the leaf you could actually smell the garlic...

(SOUNDBITE OF SNIFFING)

LIZARONDO: ...a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

PAGE-JACOBS: In the kitchen Lizarondo gets a big pot of water boiling to blanch the nettles.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOILING LID CLATTERING CLOSED)

PAGE-JACOBS: That'll make them as gentle as spinach, which is exactly what they smell like after wilting in the hot water.

LIZARONDO: We'll go back to our garlic mustard, and this is very easy to handle. OK.

PAGE-JACOBS: Lizarondo says pesto makes a great wild edibles starter dish.

LIZARONDO: There's not a lot of investment in it and you can actually taste the green because you're not mixing it with something else that would mask the taste.

PAGE-JACOBS: Into the food processor goes: extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, roasted walnuts for body, lemon zest...

(SOUNDBITE OF ZEST GRATING)

PAGE-JACOBS: ...freshly squeezed lemon juice.

A few cloves of peeled garlic...

(SOUNDBITE OF PEELING GARLIC)

PAGE-JACOBS: ...water and, of course, wilted stinging nettles and fresh garlic mustard leaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PROCESSOR)

LIZARONDO: That's it. And now you can put this in warm pasta or bread. So it's lemony, it's spicy, it's definitely not a basil pesto. The character is completely different and your friends will definitely love it.

PAGE-JACOBS: And as your guests are chowing down, let them know all they need to make the dish is stinging nettles and garlic mustard, or maybe tell them over dessert.

For NPR News, I'm Larkin Page-Jacobs in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.