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How to Forage for Wild Garlic (+ Garlic Mustard Pesto)

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Foraged vegetables are always more fun to cook. So our resident forager, Tama Matsuoka Wong, is introducing us to the seasonal wild plants we should be looking for, and the recipes that will make our kitchens feel a little more wild.

Today: Spring begins with onions and garlic; here are three varieties you can find in the wild, plus a pesto recipe to carry you through to summer. 

Now that spring is finally here, the yearning for something green has begun. In many cultures, people welcome spring with fresh greens, using them to make a tonic that cleanses the body and gets their blood and bodies going after a long winter. Wild onions are one of the first wild greens to appear each year, followed closely by green garlic.

Sadly, the alliums you most often find in grocery stores are papery, dried out garlic bulbs and fully mature onions. But recently, farmers markets have begun offering a variety of wild alliums, from spring onions to garlic scapes. If you enjoy the juicy, sweet garlic and onion flavors of these juvenile alliums, you will love the incredible freshness of foraged spring garlic.

Foraging -- the practice of gathering wild food -- is deeply rooted in human traditions that began in pre-agricultural times, and have carried into modern culture. Today, it is experiencing a revival, and many foraged foods have found their way to restaurants, farmers markets, and local distributors. If you can get outdoors, though, there is nothing like foraging on your own, experiencing nature intensely, and knowing exactly where your food came from.

This very experience is what compelled me to abandon my 20-year career as a Wall Street lawyer and move my office into the field. At first I was just curious to learn which plants grew wildly in my back yard, but the more I learned, the more fascinating and beautiful I found wild plants. And now, I know how easy it is to experience their rich flavors in tune with the season.

The taste of spring's wild alliums wakes you up with a bit of heat, and a little sweetness; they round out the flavors of meat, fish, pasta, eggs, and potatoes. Here are some of the most common types, how to find them, and what to do with them; they will all last for about a week, stored in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator.

Wild onion (Allium vineale) shoots have a great flavor that is a cross between that of chives and onions. School children love to identify this “onion grass” from its round, not flat, blades. The easiest way to know you've found wild onions is to grab a clump and inhale their sweet, oniony aroma.  

Look for thinner, finer blades (thicker ones can have a sharp bite) of onion grass in early spring at woodland edges and even on your lawn. To use them, chop them finely and add to sour cream for a dressing or dip, or substitute them in your favorite recipe that calls for chives. I love to snip them and add them lavishly to eggs, potatoes, and stir-fries. The older blades can be cooked into dumplings or savory biscuits, and the bulbs pickled.

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are wild leeks, one of the first greens to appear in spring on the east coast; their scarcity and pungent flavor have created a craze. But there are now about 2 million ramps picked each year, and studies have shown that pulling out the entire plant with its bulb does not allow the ramp to regenerate; so I no longer forage for them.

If you do want to forage for ramps, be sure not to pull out the entire bulb; instead, just snip off the top green leaves.

More: Try turning your ramps into carbonara, pesto, or pickles.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive herb in the mustard family that was originally brought to North America by Europeans as a salad green. It has a lovely, mild garlic taste that goes well in a pesto, in mashed potatoes, or mixed with oil for basting on lamb or roasts.

Garlic mustard grows prolifically along woods’ edges, and is easy to identify: It starts as a basal rosette with crinkly, heart-shaped leaves that form a U-shape where the leaf joins the purplish stem. As the temperature rises, the second-year plants will shoot up a bit with a lime green growth and start to form small white flowers. The leaves can then become somewhat variable in shape, although on any given plant you should also be able to find the heart-shaped leaves at the bottom. 

Tear off and crush a leaf to check for a garlicky aroma. These light green tips are the best to harvest, as the dark green lower leaves can be quite bitter. You can pull out the entire plant by the roots (this will help the neighboring trees and plants, as garlic mustard inhibits their growth). If you find some plants with large roots, try grating the roots over dishes like you would horseradish, as some chefs are beginning to do.

Garlic Mustard Pesto

Adapted from Roger Ma at Restaurant Daniel

Yields about 2 cups

10 to 12 cups (lightly packed) garlic mustard leaves and tips
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 squeezes lemon juice 

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Note: When foraging, always choose high-quality landscapes (not next to the highway or on post-industrial or sprayed sites), and make sure to obtain permission if it is not your own yard. If possible, go out with an experienced forager. We assume no responsibility for any adverse effects from misidentification or incorrect use of featured wild plants. For more information and identification advice please consult us at meadowsandmore.com.

Photos by Yossy Arefi

Tags: foraging, wild, garlic, leeks, onions, recipes, wild food, mustard, pesto, sauces, meadows and more

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