Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Eat Me

Backyard Buffet

Foraging For Dinner Right Outside Your Door

Michelle Gienow

More info on Steve Brill's website

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 4/23/2008

If I have one natural nemesis, it is wild garlic mustard. You're probably blissfully unaware of this invasive plant slowly but steadily crowding out native Maryland flora, but this time of year it is the bane of my existence. It is believed that garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata, a culinary herb) was brought here by European settlers and escaped from the garden; since then it has been busy. In early spring, everywhere I go I see healthy, thriving clusters of this plant. I have become a wee bit obsessed--when I take my kids to the zoo, I discreetly pull up garlic mustard along the pathway to the chimp house; on evening walks I yank clumps from the neighbors' yards. The damned stuff is everywhere.

Since I spend the months of March through June uprooting tons of garlic mustard, I started wondering if there was a way to, you know, use it. When crushed, the leaves do smell like garlic, and I have read that in the fall the roots can be harvested and used like horseradish. The idea, however, is to pull up as much of this prolific plant as possible before it flowers and sets seeds, so letting it live until the autumn is not on my agenda.

I love bitter greens such as kale and rapini (which, like garlic mustard, are members of the brassica family), so I tried a straight sauté of freshly harvested garlic mustard greens in butter. It was, um, sturdy, too intensely bitter to eat by itself. But in smaller quantities mixed with other ingredients it is actually quite tasty; I stir-fried a little in bacon fat and tossed it with pappardelle, chanterelles, and smoked duck and served it to my unsuspecting extended family. They loved it, especially topped with a garlic mustard, lemon zest, and sea salt gremolata. Enamored with the idea of a spring-tonic pasta sauce, I am also working on a recipe for pesto petiolata.

My tilting at the garlic mustard windmill is ongoing, but eating it started me wondering what other weedy edibles I might be yanking out of the garden. I wanted to chew the right things and so consulted a few wild-foraging guidebooks. It turns out that there are several tasty plants in season right now that are abundant, easy to find, and, perhaps most importantly, not easily confused with anything poisonous.

We recently dined on dandelion greens, both sautéed on their own and in a salad along with young violet leaves and flowers, chickweed, and wood sorrel, plus a little onion grass thrown in for flavor. I am now addicted to sautéed dandelion leaves with their slightly bitter but earthily rich flavor. Chickweed is ubiquitous, a low, bunching plant with small starlike white flowers springing up on long stems; I use it--leaves, stems, and flowers--like cilantro. Violet leaves, all crunchy texture with a very mild flavor, pair beautifully with lemony sorrel. Onion grass--the slender dark green spikes outgrowing grass in every lawn, everywhere right now--is also called field garlic, and you can use the teeny weeny bulbs as garlic, throw the shoots whole into salads, or chop the green part like chives.

As these early spring edibles fade away or simply become inedible--dandelion greens become extremely bitter once the flowers appear, violet leaves too coarse and tough to eat--they will be replaced by two better-known weed/food plants: lamb's quarters, a type of wild spinach, and purslane, a thick-stemmed succulent herb with a pleasantly peppery bite. I predict a real renaissance for purslane once word gets out that it contains more Omega-3 fatty acids than any plant other than seaweed. And here I have been treating it like a weed, composting it by the armload each summer.

The list of potentially edible wild plants goes on and on, but in order to sample garlic mustard, violets, or chickweed--or white clover, stinging nettles, fiddlehead ferns, and Japanese knotweed--you'll pretty much have to go out and get 'em. Dandelion greens will make a fleeting appearance this spring at the Waverly farmers' market, but for anything else you will have to boldly go forth and gather. April into May is prime time for most wild greens.

You don't need to live in the country to forage up a salad or side dish. It's possible even for city dwellers to gather free, tasty treats--self-styled foraging expert "Wildman" Steve Brill gives wild-food gathering tours of Manhattan's Central Park. First, consult a good edible plant reference book (I like Peterson's A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants); then all you need is a chemical- and pet-free locale for scouting. Avoid areas like roadsides and utility right of ways that may be sprayed with herbicides, ditto ChemLawn-lush yards.

Your own backyard is best, and even if you don't have one, surely you know someone who does. Local parks are a possibility, especially if you wander far from heavily frequented (i.e., dog walking) areas, but be aware that Maryland state parks prohibit plant harvesting. Since most wild greens are technically nuisance plants growing in disturbed ground, in most cases overharvesting is not a worry. Alas, despite my best efforts, there will always be more garlic mustard.

Chickweed-Yogurt Sauce

Use as a dip, salad dressing, or topping for roasted salmon or whatever else tastes good.


1/4 cup (packed) chickweed (leaves, stems, and flowers)
1/2 cup plain whole milk yogurt
3/4 cup Trader Joe's Thai chile-lime cashews
(or 3/4 cup regular cashews, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon
curry powder, and the juice of one lime)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 slice (1/4-1/2 inch thick) fresh ginger, peeled


Put ginger slice in a food processor fitted with a blade and puree until minced fine.

Add Thai chile-lime cashews (if you're using plain cashews, add just the nuts now, reserve the cayenne pepper, curry powder, and lime juice for the next step), process until smooth paste forms. 

Add all other ingredients and process until smoothly incorporated. Salt to taste--probably unnecessary if cashews were salted.


Pasta alla Waverly Farmers' Market

Pappardelle with smoked duck, chanterelles, and garlic mustard with garlic mustard gremolata


1/2 smoked duck
1 pint of chanterelle mushrooms
3 packed cups garlic mustard plus extra for gremolata
3 packed cups mixed cooking greens or kale
16 ounces pappardelle pasta
one organic lemon
sea salt
Pecorino Romano cheese


At the Waverly Farmers' Market purchase one smoked half duck from the Neopol stand, chanterelle mushrooms from the mushroom lady, and mixed sauté greens or kale from the Gardener's Gourmet salad stand.

Gather the most gigantic mound of garlic mustard you can pull, roots and all. Discard all but three packed cups of leaves from plants that have not yet flowered, bearing in mind that the roots of this evil, tenacious plant must be removed from the area you are clearing or they will re-establish themselves in the ground.

Remove the skin and fat from the duck and cut it into small pieces. Cook the skin and fat slowly over medium-low heat so that the fat renders. 

Meanwhile, remove the duck meat from the carcass and cut into bite-size pieces.

Clean chanterelles and chop coarsely. Toss chanterelle pieces into fat, retaining duck skin cracklings, and sauté until tender (about six minutes). 

Add duck meat and toss everything together just until duck meat warms up.

Cover and set aside to keep warm.

Begin cooking pappardelle according to package directions. 

Take 3 cups of garlic mustard greens and mix with 3 cups cooking greens or kale. Rinse greens. 

Melt 2-4 tablespoons of bacon fat, lard, duck or chicken fat, or, if you don't have any of these, half butter and half olive oil, in a large pan. 

Toss greens into pan with water clinging to leaves; stir fry briefly over high heat, then lower heat, cover pan and leave greens to steam no more than five minutes, until they wilt.

To make the gremolata, chop fine a large double handful of mustard garlic leaves. Mix with the rind of one organic lemon, grated fine, and about 1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt.

Toss cooked pasta, greens, and duck/mushroom mixture together. 

Serve with freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese and gremolata.


Pesto Petiolata

Serve as a dip, sandwich spread, or over hot pasta.


3 cloves garlic
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup walnut pieces
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or mix of Parmesan and pecorino)
2 cups (packed) rinsed garlic mustard leaves
2 cups (packed) rinsed baby spinach leaves (or, if you are truly bold, use 4 cups garlic mustard leaves)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt, then more to taste


Place garlic cloves in food processor and mince. 

Add walnuts, cheese, and salt and process until smooth. 

With processor running add oil in thin stream until incorporated. 

Add greens and process briefly just until pesto is smooth and evenly dark green. 

Salt to taste.

Related stories

Eat Me archives

More from Michelle Gienow

Nice Tea (7/28/2010)
A foolproof guide to a summer staple

Welcome Home, Big Beef (4/28/2010)
Taking the grass-fed beef by the horns and cooking it

Let It Snow (2/24/2010)
Making sweet treats out of the fluffy white stuff

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter