Each year I look forward to the nettles so that I can make a gallon of fermented nettle kraut. This year I wanted to try something different. So, off we headed to the creek with snips and a basket, wearing long sleeves and good gloves.
Our creeks in Western Oregon are choked with Himalayan Blackberries, as are the fence lines and fields; in fact these canes even swallow abandoned buildings. A few years ago 1.7 miles of neighbors along Thompson Creek cooperated and agreed to an ambitious riparian restoration project. The first part of this rehabilitation was to simply cut down the blackberries. It was fascinating to see the land reveal itself under the bramble. An area below our house exposed a few rusted-out early twentieth century car bodies and a wonderful patch of nettles. I was thrilled especially since I’ve attempted and failed a few times at seeding my own wild nettle patch by planting nursery-grown plants strategically along the creek.
I divided the harvest into three piles—one for dinner, one for nettle kimchi, and one for a pure nettle ferment. I wanted to see if I could make a fermented nettle pesto. I chopped and salted the pure nettle ferment; 8 ounces of leaves fit perfectly in a half-pint jar. While dark-leafy greens usually make dark-leafy brine this nettle brine was enchanting, in a fairytale cauldron’s brew type of way, the green had an opaque depth that I haven’t seen before. I put this on the counter to ferment. I submerged the next bundle for the kimchi in a salt-water brine to soak overnight. We ate the rest.
I monitored the ferments for air pockets and then checked both ferments after a week for acidity and flavor. The kimchi was developing. The pure nettle hadn’t changed a bit. I checked again a week later; the kimchi was ready and amazing. The pure nettle kraut still had not changed; it was not fermented (pH still where it started) but it wasn’t bad either, no mold, no yeast—it was exactly as it had been on day one. I thought it strange but kept letting it ferment. On the third week the pH was at 4.7—very close to the ideal of 4.6 or lower. There was also a huge shift visually. The deep chlorophyll colored brine was rust colored. The same color that basil and other dark green ferments turn.
I tried again but this time also made a small batch using a couple of tablespoons of fermented sauerkraut brine. Interestingly, the plain batch without the added brine again fermented after a very long wait. My humble theory is that nettles on their own don’t contain as much inherent lactic-acid bacteria (LAB) as most other vegetables. The kimchi fermented at the usual rate because the added ingredients had more of the needed LAB, as did the batch with brine.
Yield: About 1/2 pint
This is one of the few recipes where we recommend using a little bit of brine from a previous batch of sauerkraut or pickles. We found that fermenting straight nettles and salt takes much longer without the addition of brine. We are not sure why, but it leads me to suspect they have less inherent lactic-acid bacteria than other veggies.
• 8 ounces nettles, upper 2 to 3 rows of leaves and stems
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 2 tbsp brine from a previous ferment, preferably mild
1. Chop the nettles crosswise. (Remember to wear gloves)
2. Sprinkle in the salt and brine. Massage to work in the salt and brine. You will see a brine forming.
3. When the nettles have wilted, press into your favorite fermentation vessel, releasing any air pockets as you go. Follow the instructions that come with that method. Otherwise choose a jar that is just the right size for your ferment and pack the nettles leaving little airspace.
If using a jar, place a small piece of plastic wrap on the surface to help keep the ferment anaerobic.
4. Put this in a corner of the kitchen to cure. Watch for air pockets forming in the paste. If you see them, open the lid and press the paste back down. If the lid starts to bubble up, simply open the lid for a moment to “burp” the ferment. If you have never fermented, here is a link to explain simple jar fermentation.
Allow to ferment for 14 days. You will know it is ready when the deep dark brine turns a rust color. This ferment will keep refrigerated for 3 months.
Fermented Nettle Pesto
Makes 1 pint
This pesto is perfect in the spring when fresh basil isn’t available in the garden. It is also a wonderful way to introduce nettles into your diet if you are not sure about the flavor or slightly silicon-feeling texture of nettles. Be aware garlic can overwhelm the flavor of the nettles much more quickly than basil. This recipe does have a strong garlic flavor but you can add more or less depending on your love of garlic.
One more recipe note — fermented nettles seem to soak up the olive oil. This recipe has a nice paste consistency but feel free to add more if you desire an oilier pesto.
• 4 ounces fermented nettle, see above recipe
• 3 ounces almonds, sprouted if possible
• 3 ounces aged sheep cheese
• 3 to 4 large cloves garlic
• 1/2 cup olive oil, or more, to achieve desired creaminess
• Zest from half a lemon
1. Put all of the ingredients into a food processor with the blade. Process until you have a smooth pesto consistency.
Serve any way you would pesto. Keeps refrigerated for a few weeks.
Kirsten K. Shockey is a post-modern homesteader who lives in the mountains of Southern Oregon. She writes about sauerkraut and life—but not necessarily in that order. She’s written a complete book of Fermented Vegetables and maintains the website Fermentista’s Kitchen.
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