From Pest to Pesto
When it comes to invasive species, a villain in the wild can become a hero on the plate. In the case of tasty, if unwelcome, garlic mustard, the most inventive eradication strategies involve annual festivals that encourage pulling up thousands of pounds of the weed and then hosting “Iron Chef” style contests to see what delicious dishes can be made of it.
The U.S. Forest Service is behind the Garlic Mustard Challenge, which many state and local groups are now involved in. To celebrate Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month (May), the Northeast Illinois Invasive Plant Partnership is participating in the challenge, while in Maryland, the Friends of Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway host a family-oriented challenge, whose tagline is “Rain or shine, we pull and dine!”
Diners have been further encouraged to try garlic mustard by nutrition experts such as John Kallas. On his recent National Public Radio appearance he stated that garlic mustard has the highest nutritional content of any wild green. While on the air, he made a wild green frittata with one cup of garlic mustard, four cups of nettles, three cups of field mustard greens and two cups of curly dock.
There is no doubt that Alliaria petiolata is a pest. It’s a non-native invasive species, brought to North America in the mid 1800s by unknown European settlers who valued it as a pot herb. The British called it jack-by-the-hedge, and other folk names include garlic root, hedge garlic, sauce alone, jack in the bush, penny hedge and poor man’s mustard.
Because it is non-native, it has no natural enemies and out-competes native plants by monopolizing space, soil nutrients, moisture and sunlight. From the northeast, it’s made its way all the way from Canada to Georgia and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, with further outposts in Oregon and Alaska. And it’s not just crowding out other plants; it makes life difficult for wildlife that depend upon native plants for their food.
While clearly a bad thing for the environment, garlic mustard is a very good thing for people. It is increasingly found on menus of high-end restaurant such as those run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Food and Wine has featured his recipe for black bass with burdock and garlic mustard. But you don’t have to seek out high-end restaurants with soaring windows overlooking Central Park for a taste of garlic mustard. Just go into the park, or the woods, or your own backyard. It’s free for the foraging in shady, moist places throughout much of the U.S.
As a biennial, garlic mustard has two distinct appearances. The first year, it is a rosette of green leaves close to the ground. The next spring, the rosettes send up flowering stalks 1 to 3 feet tall. Both forms have toothed triangular leaves that release a garlic aroma when pinched.
Garlic mustard is best just before it flowers, but if you don’t catch it before, it’s still good, and the flowers are edible too. They have four small white petals, in the shape of a cross, revealing garlic mustard’s membership in the large crucifer family (kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc).
Because garlic mustard is a serious threat to native ecosystems, don’t just pinch off the leaves, but carefully uproot the entire plant. And if you’re not going to eat everything you harvest, dispose of it by burning, since even after uprooted, it will form seeds and you’ll have more garlic mustard the next year.
Garlic mustard is a lively accent in salads or on sandwiches. It’s also good lightly steamed, simmered or sauteed. But my favorite way to enjoy it is as a pesto. You can use your favorite basil pesto recipe, or try this one.
Garlic Mustard Pesto
- Combine garlic mustard, garlic, and walnuts in a food processor.
- Slowly add olive oil until desired consistency is reached.
- Add cheese and process briefly.
- Taste and add salt or pepper if desired.
- Serve over pasta or spread on crackers or sandwiches.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Photos, from top:
Garlic mustard is found in moist, shady places, and is best when harvested before it blooms.
The four-petaled flowers of garlic mustard are characteristic of plants in the crucifer family, which includes cabbage, kale, broccoli, bok choy and many other Asian greens.
Credits: Terra Brockman