With the mild winter we’ve been having in Brooklyn, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) leaves are still tender and perky. They taste like a lightly bitter green with flavors of…you guessed it, garlic and mustard.
Garlic mustard offers different ways to spice up your cooking at different times of year. It is a biennial, which means it takes two years complete its development. During its first year, it hangs out as a rosette of heart-shaped leaves with scalloped margins and a net-like pattern of veins.
At this time of year, I like to use foraged garlic mustard combined with milder greens and field garlic in winter pestos and braised greens. Now is also a good time to dig up some of the roots. These can be used just like horseradish.
In the 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. In BK, garlic mustard flowers in mid-spring.
When the new flower stalks are still tender (around 8 inches tall) and bearing the green, unopened flower heads, treat them like brocoli rabe. At this stage they are one of my absolute favorite wild vegetables and I don’t bother adding other greens to them. Stir-fry them in a little extra-virgin olive oil with a few red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt – delicious as is or added to pasta and served with grated cheese.
Later on in the summer the flowers become 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 make 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.
Garlic mustard is an invasive alien. Sounds scary, but that also means you can harvest it freely without worrying about sustainability issues. In fact, Parks Department tries to weed this plant out. Native to Europe and brought to Long Island by early colonists as a garden plant, it has spread to 4 continents. 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 trees have leafed out in the spring.
Winter Pesto with Garlic Mustard
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.
Pungent garlic mustard pesto goes well with a local Cabernet Franc like the one from Raphael Vineyard.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com