May 23, 2022
By Merrie Witkin
When I started writing this column, stinging nettles (urtica dioica) were not anywhere on my radar. But I am blessed with an eagle-eyed gardener who knows his local plants. For years Elton has been bringing me wild foraged watercress and other greens, and has touted nettles as a delicious green I should try. Finally he found a patch of nettles while pruning some undergrowth at the edge of my yard and pointed them out to me. Ever curious, I did some research to see how they could be used. It turns out nettles are highly nutritious with significant levels of protein, vitamins and absorbable calcium and iron. They have a delicate earthy flavor, similar to spinach. I tried them in soup, mixed with herbs in a pesto, and in pasta, more particularly in the Ligurian stuffed pasta known as “pansotti” (which means “pot-bellied” in the Ligurian dialect). All were delicious, but making pansotti was the most fun.
Identifying and harvesting nettles. Stinging nettle is an erect perennial, usually unbranched, with paired opposing leaves shaped a little like mint—sawtoothed leaves with pointy tips. They develop large colonies through spread by rhizomes (as well as seeds). Stinging hairs are located on the lower side of the leaf blade and on the stems, which are 4-angled. Nettles thrive in damp nutrient rich soil; they are found in orchards, nurseries, pastures and on the outskirts of farmlands. The plants generally flower from late May to October, but it is best to collect the greens before they flower. (1)
To harvest them and prevent stings, wear long sleeves and gloves and clip the nettle stems leaving about 3-5 inches of stem and plant remaining. When harvesting in mid spring, snip off only the tender-leafed top portion. I collect the leafy stems in a basket, wearing rubber gloves, which enable me then to safely strip off the leaves. Wash the fresh leaves in a big bowl of cool water, which also lessens the sting. Cooking or drying the leaves removes the sting entirely. The easiest way to fully de-sting the leaves and prepare them for cooking is to briefly blanch them in salted boiling water (about a minute, not much more or they become mushy), then drain and rinse them in cool water. Squeeze the cooled leaves to remove the water, and at this stage they are ready for whatever recipe you choose to use them in—simply sautéed with oil and garlic, in soup or pesto, or mixed with other herbs and ingredients as a pasta stuffing, etc. Once blanched they can also be frozen until you are ready to use them.
Pansotti is a triangular-shaped stuffed ravioli-like pasta traditionally filled with a mixture of foraged parboiled greens known as “preboggion”, cheese and nutmeg. The mix of wild herbs and greens can include nettles, borage, dandelion, rocket, chicory, and marjoram, among others native to Liguria. Cultivated greens such as spinach, chard, beet greens and parsley can also be substituted. Like most Italian pasta recipes, every pansotti recipe I found was different. Some variation is to be expected because the mix of foraged and cultivated greens and herbs will vary due to the time of year, and what is available in the chosen locale. Other differences (greens to cheese ratio, adding egg or garlic, or not) may follow from what I call the “Nonna effect”— that is, everyone’s recipe is based on what they learned from their grandmother. That said, I make no pretense that my recipe is authentic; garlic mustard is not a traditional preboggion green, but its mustardy bitter element is not dissimilar to that of rocket or dandelion, and it adds a complementary mild garlic element to the nettle mix, with the added benefit that it grows everywhere in our area! [Click here to read about it in this months Species Spotlight!] As for herbs, I use the traditional marjoram (which you can substitute with a mild young oregano if you don’t have marjoram) along with parsley.
Ingredients and tools
Digital scale—to weigh the blanched greens to achieve a consistent ratio between nettles and garlic mustard, as well as flour, if making your own pasta dough Silicone pastry brush
(If you are trying nettles and garlic mustard for the first time and don’t want to go to the trouble of making pasta dough just yet, you can use won ton wrappers.) Otherwise –
To make the pasta dough
Make the filling
While the dough is resting, make the filling:
Making the pansotti
Finishing and saucing the pansotti
Pansotti is traditionally served with a walnut sauce (salsa di noce), made like a white pesto with chopped walnuts, olive oil, garlic, marjoram and milk-soaked bread for creaminess. With their delicate flavor, however, pansotti shine equally well with a simple pan sauce of butter, grated Parmesan and chopped parsley, snipped chives (or field garlic chives) and marjoram. I add some chopped walnuts which toast lightly in the butter pan sauce.
Depending on how big you make them, serve 4-5 pansotti per person for an appetizer, and 7-8 for a main course.
(1) The flowers, which are not showy, grow in tendrils drooping from the stems. Once nettles flower, the leaves become bitter and gritty, as the plant starts producing calcium oxalate which can be absorbed by the body. For more information please refer to a reputable handbook on foraging.
(2) Use the same method to harvest, clean and blanch the garlic mustard as you do with the nettles. Look for tender leaves on either first or second year plants. Garlic mustard can be harvested any time during its two year life cycle, but earlier/younger leaves will be less bitter.
There are any number of good books on identifying and foraging wild foods. My principal references are:
Uva, Richard, Neal, Joseph, and DiTomaso, Joseph, Weeds of the Northeast, 1997, Cornell University Press;
Meredith, Leda, Northeast Foraging, 2014, Timber Press
Reliable websites for cooking tips and recipes for nettles and other foraged greens include:
Thespruceeats.com; foragerchef.com; and wildedible.com
There are numerous YouTube videos showing how pansotti are made. This includes the cult series Pasta Grannies (which feature real Italian Nonnas cooking pasta dishes in their home kitchens), a Jamie Oliver video on nettle ravioli (Nettle Ravioli/Jamie Oliver), and a helpful MaryAnn Esposito video (https://youtu.be/z7KWUcuiTGg).
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