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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.