Foraging For Dinner Right Outside Your Door
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.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201