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Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has been hanging out all winter, even when its leaves were buried under snow. The plants will start putting out lush and perky new growth now that the days are noticeably longer and temperatures at least slightly milder.
Garlic mustard tastes like a lightly bitter leafy green with flavors of…you guessed it, garlic and mustard.
This plant offers several different ways to spice up your cooking. It is a biennial, which means that it starts growing in the late summer and fall of one year, overwinters, and then goes to seed and completes its life cycle the following year. During its first year, it hangs out as a rosette of heart-shaped leaves with scalloped margins and a net-like pattern of veins.
In late winter and early spring, I like to use foraged garlic mustard combined with milder greens and field garlic in pestos and braised greens. Now is also a good time to dig up some of the roots. These can be used just like horseradish. They're stringier though, so best minced very finely.
Further into spring, Alliaria shoots up flower stalks that can get to be 2 1/2 feet tall. The flowers start out looking like miniature broccoli heads, then open into small, 4-petaled white flowers. The leaves on the flower stalks have a more pointed, triangular shape than the rosette leaves.
When the new flower stalks are still tender (around 8 inches tall), and bearing the green, unopened (or just starting to open) flower heads, treat them like broccoli rabe. At this stage they are one of my absolute favorite wild vegetables. Stir-fry the greens in a little extra-virgin olive oil, a few red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt – delicious as is or added to pasta and served with grated cheese.
In summer, the flowers turn into slender, dry capsules 1 to 2 1/2 inches long. Before the seed capsules are fully dry, when they are still green and easy to pinch in half, they are a good, mildly-spicy raw snack. Once ripe, each capsule contains a row of black seeds. Not everybody loves the taste of these seeds, but I find them very good lightly crushed and added to curries. You can also sprout them.
Garlic mustard is an invasive european species that has naturalized on four continents. You can harvest it freely without worrying about sustainability issues. You won’t make a dent in this plant’s population by eating it all year.
Look for garlic mustard in places that will be only partially sunny or in light shade once nearby deciduous trees have leafed out in the spring.
Wild Greens Pesto with Garlic Mustard Recipe
1/4 cup walnuts or pine nuts
1 cup garlic mustard leaves
1 cup chickweed (Stellaria media) or fresh parsley leaves
1 teaspoon cleaned field garlic bulbs OR 1 clove garlic, peeled
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese (or a pinch of nutritional yeast if you’re keeping it vegan)
Salt to taste
Put the nuts and garlic into a food processor or blender. Blend until the garlic is minced and the nuts are finely chopped.
Add the garlic mustard leaves and the chickweed or parsley. Pulse a few times to coarsely chop the leaves.
With the processor or blender running, add the olive oil in a steady pour, stopping 2 or 3 times to scrape down any leaves that are clinging to the sides of your machine.
Add the cheese, if using, and blend for a few seconds longer. Add a little more oil if it seems too thick, more nuts or cheese if it’s more liquid than you’d like. Add salt to taste.
Toss with pasta, add a spoonful to winter root vegetable stews, or use as a dipping sauce for a good, crusty bread.
Always be 100% certain of your plant identification before eating any wild plant.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and find her food preservation recipes and tips. Her latest book is Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries.