Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why You Should Forage & Eat Garlic Mustard + Simple Recipe Ideas

Flowering garlic mustard in mid-May, when it is easiest to identify
(also check out its distant cousin--the edible yellow rocket in the picture)

You can't help but see this plant everywhere. It's a horribly invasive weed which damages ecosystems by crowding out other native plant species. It's a bully whose numerous seeds spread everywhere, it secrets toxins which poison the fungi native plants need to live, and it can live overwinter, under snow, and get a jump start on the spring season.

It's also a tasty, versatile, and nutritious vegetable.

Whether you are just getting into foraging, or if you have been into wild plants for years, Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one species you shouldn't pass up. Its abundant, easy-to-identify, every part of the plant is edible, and it's available year-round, and, due to it's invasive nature, gathering as much of it as you want actually helps, rather than hurts, the environment. It's probably the wild plant I eat the most of, every year.

Every part of the plant is edible, at least at some time of the year.

The leaves of the first year plants are low to the ground, darker green, and have a distinctive outline: a deeply scalloped fan or kidney-shape. Though they are more bitter than the leaves of flowering plants, they have the advantage of being available year-round. (Under the snow in most parts of the US)

The root, which can also be eaten all 4 seasons, if the ground isn't frozen, has a pungent, horseradishy flavor, especially when mixed with white vinegar (just like our commercial horseradish is).


The young second-year plant, pre-flowering
at this age the whole plant, including the stem is edible
The stems of the second-year plant can be eaten in early to mid-spring, before the plant flowers, and while the stem is still pliable. Professional forager Sam Thayer says it is the best part of the plant, and can be used as you would asparagus (though of course, the flavor is different), but that has not been my experience. I have always found the stems to be bitter, and rather tough even when very young. Perhaps location plays a factor.

The leaves of the flowering, second-year plants are my favorite part, despite being downplayed in the foraging world. Again, where the plants are harvested makes a huge difference: get your garlic mustard from the shade, unless you're a big fan of very bitter tastes. These leaves can be quite large (up to 5-6" across at the end of summer), making them easy to gather.

So, what can you do with it?
I have a list of garlic mustard recipes here, but for some quick suggestions, consider the following:

Make a Pesto 
There is even a cookbook called:
"Garlic Mustard, from Pest to Pesto"

This is far and away the most common use. I don't have a specific recipe, but it's pretty straightforward: blanched garlic mustard leaves, olive oil and cheese in a food processor. Ingredients like pinenuts or even hazelnuts can be added, but they are optional. Since garlic mustard is so pungent, I like a strong cheese such as asiago or even swiss. The internet is full of garlic mustard pesto recipes, in fact, it's full of pesto recipes for any wild green: stinging nettles, dandelion greens, etc. The moral of the story is that, no matter how hesitant we are with a new vegetable, we know it will taste good once we mix in olive oil and cheese.


This tabbouleh, made with half garlic mustard,
is one of my favorite ways to eat this veggie

Start adding it to salads 

Raw garlic mustard leaves have a much stronger flavor than the blanched ones, so start small. You would also definitely want to use second-year plants from deep shade here. But garlic mustard can enhance almost any salad type, if you use the right proportions. Basically, if you are using mild greens (like iceberg or romaine lettuce), you can add about 25% garlic mustard leaves. If you are using greens that already have strongly bitter flavors, like kale or mustard greens, consider only adding about 15% garlic mustard. On the other hand, if you are using strongly-flavored greens, like parsley in a tabbouleh, they will balance out well with an equal amount (50%) garlic mustard. 

Use it as a pot-herb, on it's own 

Boil the garlic mustard leaves for about 7-10 minutes to reduce bitterness, till the water is bright green, and saute the greens with some butter or olive oil and garlic. Bacon or pancetta also make great additions. Cooked this way, garlic mustard makes a great, simple side dish to any meat, or you can mix it with pasta. You can also take it in an Eastern direction, with garlic, ginger, chili sauce, etc. Boiled garlic mustard has the texture of cooked spinach, but with a bitter kick, like broccoli rabe--to which it's related. You must have a decent tolerance for bitter foods to enjoy it this concentrated though.

A special note
Garlic mustard contains cyanide--but don't panic just yet! Many of our cultivated vegetables, including broccoli and broccoli rabe (both related to garlic mustard) also have trace amounts of cyanide. Garlic mustard has been used as a vegetable in Europe for centuries, and here in America for decades. Most people agree that the amounts of cyanide are negligible for a human, our livers do a great job of filtering it out. However, just to be on the safe side, I limit myself to no more than 2 dishes a week. It's also worth noting that cyanide is water-soluble, so blanching or soaking the leaves (if you want to use them raw) will reduce concentrations. 

24 comments:

  1. Cyanide? My first taste of the greens was on Friday Morning, I sauteed the blanched greens with onions and garlic and Butter, it was delicious. It reminded me of a taste of a vegetable or snack fruit in my country, I could not quite get the taste as yet. I have some at the moment and wants a receipe for it. Now i have read it contains Cyanide? hmmm, I am skeptical of trying it again. I will have to think about it. I see you have other greens I have been eating not knowing they also have Cyanide, and cousins at that to garlic mustard. . Well, I will give it a try but as you said "Limiting myself to two dishes a week"! Good Reading!

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    1. Exactly--"In all things, moderation". By limiting your intake, you give your liver extra time to process out anything you take in--rather than repeatedly bombarding it. Plus remember, the cyanide is water-solvable, and so you remove quite a bit by blanching or soaking. I am glad you found the post useful!

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  2. All mustards contain cyanates.

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    1. Yup! That's why I mentioned broccoli and broccoli rabe, both in the mustard family. However, garlic mustard's cyanide levels are a bit higher.

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    2. Lima beans have cyanide too. I suspect it's more common than we realize.

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    3. Hi Kristen

      Yup! Cyanide is very common in our veggies, as is oxalic acid (in sorrel and buckwheat). The plants develop these poisons to try and stop animals (and us) from eating them. Fortunately we adapt right along with the plants, and our livers really do an excellent job.

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  3. Pickle it with rice water and salt including stems, leave it for three days, and eat with rice dishes.

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    1. Sounds good! Like a quick version of kimchi? Does the garlic flavor still come through, or is it sort of soaked out?

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    2. What is rice water?

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    3. Hey sorry for the delay in getting back--for some reason, blogger marked your question as spam :( . Rice water is when you use extra water for your rice, and have liquid left over. It's starchy and as many of the nutritional benefits of the rice itself.

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  4. There are many vegetables that contain potentially harmful substances, such as rhubarb, and potatoes if they start to turn green. Educate yourself about them before gorging, and don't panic. LOL

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  5. there is NO cyanide in this plant. There are "isocyanates" which are not the same thing at all. Isocyanates, can also be poisonous (depends on the form) but are also what you taste in black pepper.

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    1. Hi Dan

      I'm not entirely sure what isocyanates are, but all the evidence points to fairly large concentrations of cyanides in garlic mustard. Honestly, many plants in the family Brassicaceae (which includes cultivated mustards, broccoli and cabbage) have cyanides. In the case of garlic mustard, the young plants have much higher amounts, and, of course, water solubility plays a factor.

      Other members of the family (like turnip greens) contain potentially dangerous amounts of vitamin A, if eaten to excess.

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  6. There is actually cyanide in this plant. Cyanide consists of a Carbon atom triple bonded to a nitrogen atom. Isocyanates are very different in that the nitrogen and carbon are double bonded to each other, the carbon is also double bonded to an oxygen and the nitrogen connects the whole group to the rest of the molecule. In cyanide, the cyano group is attached to the molecule through the carbon. Garlic mustard is the only member of it's family to contain alliarinosid, a very complex molecule with a cyanide on it. This is part of the plants suit of natural chemical defenses and is most likely the source for the very high concentration of cyanide that exists in the plant. The source hasn't been proven but the plant does contain potentially toxic levels and should be eaten in moderation. As with everything else, moderation is important.

    Cyanide in the Chemical Arsenal of Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata
    Journal of Chemical Ecology 33(1):85-94 · January 2007
    DOI: 10.1007/s10886-006-9205-x · Source: PubMed
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6651853_Cyanide_in_the_Chemical_Arsenal_of_Garlic_Mustard_Alliaria_petiolata

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  7. Does anyone know the oxalate content of wild garlic mustard?

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  8. Does anyone know the oxalate content of wild garlic mustard?

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    1. As far as I know, it's not enough for a healthy person to worry about, even in fairly high quantity. If you're sensitive, or have kidney problems, I'm not sure.

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  9. Just leave enough for the orange tip butterflies this year!

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    1. But its an invasive speasies

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    2. Most butterflies laying eggs on this, said eggs will be killed. And one plant can take over an entire area - show no mercy! Eradicate this stuff ...

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  10. Can I feed it to my kids? We are learning to forage, and my 4yr old twins really like to try things, I know sweet clover has it, and they have eaten them before, but only a few leaves.

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    1. It should be fine to feed to 4 year olds, in moderation, like most things. I would recommend no more than 3 servings a week, (or every other day), and either boil or soak the leaves before eating.

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  11. I found this an interesting read, both the article and the responses didnt know about the cyanide content in garlic mustard or its relatives. good to know as i take people on wild medicinal and culinary weed walks and I'm a stickler on mentioning any contraindicative issues. i used garlic mustard in an omelolet the other day with asparagus and garlic tops.....delicious! thanks for the info

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    1. Exactly. It's the kind of thing which poses no danger as long as you remain aware and use moderation--like most things!

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