Around this time of year all the foodies in my neck of the woods are, well, in the woods. Spring and fall are the best wild food foraging times around here, and as if ol' Mother Nature knew our food prices were going through the roof and transportation costs skyrocketing, she's brought us a cornucopia of wild edibles out there, free for the taking.
Besides the morels I spoke of recently (did I mention my son found some 10 feet from our back door?), we find oyster and velvet foot and puffball mushrooms around here, and soon the goat's beard and hen-o-the-woods will be popping out. There are ramps and fiddleheads to be had in the forest as well, but the two wild foods of the week are a weed and an invader - stinging nettles and garlic mustard.
Now anyone who's done any camping has probably developed a special kind of hatred for nettles, a plant with a nasty natural defense that is more than enough to make anyone assume it is not edible. Seems when touched, or even just barely grazed by the skin, these otherwise pretty little plants release the tips of their tiny spines, and with them a wicked cocktail of acetylcholine, histamine, formic acid and 5-hydroxytryptamine (which, curiously, is seratonin). The result is a crazy burning itch that lasts about 10 minutes. Surprisingly though they are quite edible, and delicious, as long as you know how to handle them. Harvested and cooked correctly they are very nutritious and tasty anywhere you might consider using spinach.
In my back yard right now is a pernicious invader called Alliaria petiolata, more commonly called garlic mustard. It was first brought to the US from Europe in the 1800s as a culinary and medicinal herb, but it has no natural predators here and soon grew out of control. It is extremely prolific and a single plant can spread into a patch of 20-120 feet in just a year. Garlic mustard will shade or crowd out native species of flowers and mushrooms and cause massive disruption in a habitat if left unchecked.
In nearby Hickory Hill Park the invasion is so successful local volunteers annually remove nearly a ton of the stuff. As I have preached before though, one way to turn an enemy into a friend is to dine with him (or in this case, on him). As mentioned, garlic mustard is a European culinary herb, and has a pleasant, bitter, somewhat spicy character. This week I've eaten it in salad, on a burger (good local grass-fed beef of course), in soup and as one of a mélange of braising greens.
An easy way to enjoy it is in a pesto. And you can make a lot because it freezes well. Just use this variation on the classic Italian basil pesto recipe, and then tinker with it to suit your fancy. I recommend to high-end Italian cheeses here, but you could easily substitute the domestic varieties. Don't use the powdery stuff in the green cylindrical box though. It's full of so much cellulose you'd be better off shredding the cardboard it comes in.
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Garlic Mustard Pesto
2 cloves of garlic
4 cups (packed) of fresh garlic mustard leaves, washed
1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons of oven toasted pine nuts (some contest this inclusion, but I like them)
3 tablespoons of grated Pecorino cheese
3 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1 cup of olive oil
Put the garlic, the washed garlic mustard leaves, the salt, which helps to preserve the green of the leaves, and the pine nuts into the mortar
Slowly mix with the pestle and add the mixed cheeses a little at a time.
When the mixture is smooth and creamy, add olive oil to taste (to the texture you prefer) and stir to incorporate.
To dress your pasta with the pesto, always dilute the pesto with a little of the cooking water from the pasta.