Abundant at the forest’s edge, along roadsides, and on river floodplains, garlic mustard is deemed by many as a noxious, invasive species that chokes out native vegetation. But we mustn’t forget that garlic mustard is also a highly nutritious spring green.
An invasive species like garlic mustard is a wonderful early spring staple in the forager’s kitchen — it makes a delicious and utilitarian pesto. We can help minimize the plant’s invasiveness in native habitats while providing nourishment at the table by incorporating it into regular mealtime.
The earliest appearance of garlic mustard was recorded in the mid-1800s on the Atlantic coast. High in vitamin C and a nutritious bitter green, it is believed to have been brought by settlers to the area of Long Island, N.Y., for food and medicinal purposes. Since that time, garlic mustard has spread south and west and has wreaked havoc on natural areas throughout the eastern United States, particularly in disturbed areas within fields, floodplains, and woodlands across the Midwest.
Garlic mustard thrives on disturbed land and areas under development. It is a winter-hardy biennial plant and can reproduce lightning fast in its second year, able to produce hundreds of seeds once it goes to flower. Once the plant sets its seed, the seeds can remain viable in the soil for many years.
Frequently, the entire plant is pulled before it goes to flower to help maintain control of the garlic mustard’s population. Try to work clean in removing the plant from the soil, as this will mean less soil to remove in the kitchen. If you don’t remove the entire plant and only want to gather the leaves, kitchen shears can easily trim the edible greens. The stems are best harvested before the flower buds appear or open. Trim these succulent stalks of their leaves and discard the leaves before cooking.
One of the most popular ways to prepare garlic mustard greens is as a versatile, delicious pesto. Pesto recipes can be adjusted (the lovely thing about pesto!) to suit personal taste preferences and the flavor of the garlic mustard that is being harvested. Want to prepare a large batch? Pesto can be made without the nuts and frozen into ice-cube sized portions that will last for several months until the local basil is ready for harvest. Add the nuts later, when are ready to serve the dish.
The pesto can be added to pasta, used in soups (like a French soupe au pistou), served on crackers with cheese as an elegant appetizer, or even used as a base for a wild foods pizza of local morels, homemade soft cheese, and wild onion. In other dishes, partner garlic mustard with complimentary flavors like parsley, walnuts, and lemon to suit your palate.
Basic Foraged Greens & Garlic Mustard Pesto
4 cups leaves, stems of Garlic Mustard (washed)
1 cup wild chives
1 cup wild garlic scapes
1 cup parsley (if desired)
1 cup walnuts
4 TBSP coconut oil
1tsp sea salt, pepper, squirt of lemon juice to taste
Add all to food processor, puree. Check flavor, add parsley, salt, pepper to preferred taste. Serve over crackers, on pizza, pasta, soup… the ideas are limitless and the pesto can be used in similar ways to traditional basil pesto.