Everywhere I go, it’s there.
Beneath trees. Along walking trails. Peaking between shrubs in parks. Brazenly towering over everything in my neighbour’s garden.
Garlic mustard is unabashedly ubiquitous this spring. It’s also Public Enemy No. 1. This “noxious weed” is known for spreading at a rapid-fire rate, choking other greenery, and with it diversity. It’s not just plants that are at stake. After all, a lot of forest-dwelling critters’ survival depends on that foliage that garlic mustard is crowding out.
Municipalities have licence to spray it to death. Others, like the city of Edmonton, have organized community garlic mustard pulls with the hope of doing away with — or at least controlling — this unapologetic leafy green, an invasive species with roots in Europe.
But garlic mustard was my hero at dinner last week when I decided to do my civic duty and try eradicating this pest by eating it. This is one wild edible with which you can throw foraging etiquette to the wind and take more — way more — than you leave behind.
It’s hard to fathom that something edible is such a villain, especially because garlic mustard is touted as having the highest nutritional value of any weedy green. It’s full of vitamins A, C and E, boasts some B vitamins and is packed with minerals, including potassium, calcium and iron. Sounds like a scoundrel alright.
Still, as I drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake Sunday, through a heavily treed area, and saw a wall of garlic mustard filling gaps between trunks, two thoughts crossed my mind: yikes and let’s eat.
So, with a trowel in hand recently, I walked a very short distance out my front door — you really don’t have to venture far to find garlic mustard — to the trail with no name that runs next to Holy Cross Secondary School in St. Catharines and started uprooting some towering stalks with visions of pesto and being a good citizen dancing in my head.
Garlic mustard aficionados will tell you the heart-shaped, jagged leaves are past their prime because most plants have started flowering, showing off their tell-tale white, sparsely petaled, delicate flowers. With their slight garlicky kick and bitter green aftertaste that’s unmistakably mustard, I thought those leaves tasted pretty darn good. And there’s nothing on this plant you can’t eat, from those blooms right down to the root, which I’ve read tastes like horseradish.
Couples out for their pre-dinner stroll and stragglers at school making their way home along the gravel walkway eyed me with suspicion as I hunched over a thicket and sliced my trowel into the earth at its base. I wrestled with the parched soil clinging with all its might to the plant’s tap root and eventually won, carting my haul home with a mix of pride and fear that some naturalist would see me with my aromatic bouquet and scold me for not taking a match to it immediately.
But I had pine nuts and Romano cheese to introduce it to, and a food processor to help along the getting-to-know-each-other phase.
The result was a bright green, flavourful pasta paste that was without a doubt the best pesto I’ve ever eaten. Yes, even better than that pesto mainstay, basil. Milder than biting arugula pesto and more flavourful than sweet but subdued basil, garlic mustard was clearly meant to get on well with olive oil, cheese and pine nuts. Truly, I’ve never enjoyed a pesto more.
Though I frightened him at first with a serving of “Noxious Weed Pesto Pasta,” my skeptical husband even wolfed down his plateful and took leftovers for lunch the next day.
“Noxious weed pesto pasta”
Garlic mustard is apparently good in salads, sandwiches, frittata, steamed and in stir-fries, too. I used my leftover pesto to perk up a batch of lentils I cooked up the next night, all the while delighting in having been a model citizen by taking on our parks department’s most wanted with my fork.
Garlic Mustard Pesto
Any pesto recipe will do, replacing the basil with garlic mustard but here’s mine:
3 cups of garlic mustard leaves, washed
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 cup Romano cheese (you can use Parmesan but I use a sheep’s cheese because of a cow dairy allergy)
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup olive oil (add more, if you’d like, to get desired consistency)
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice (to help keep the vibrant green colour)
salt and pepper to taste
Put all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Add more olive oil, if necessary, to get desired consistency.
Toss with pasta or lentils, or spread on crusty bread. Then pat yourself on the back for a civic duty well done. Stores up to three days.