Garlic mustard is an invasive plant that, thankfully, is edible and extremely healthful, and can be used in a variety of dishes. My favorite use for it, however, is a delicious pesto sauce. In fact, garlic mustard pesto is easily one of my top three favorite foraging recipes that I’ve ever tried! Just as with basil pesto, this is a sauce that goes deliciously with pasta, chicken, rice, or anything else you’d use a basil pesto for. Each cup will save you a lot of money if you find yourself buying gourmet pasta sauces when at the grocery store.
As the name implies, garlic mustard leaves have a strong, oniony flavor. Its roots taste more like horseradish. Both the leaves and some of the roots are used in this pesto recipe, and all parts of the plant are edible.
The plant grows and spreads very fast, so once you find a patch of it, you’ll be hard-pressed to use all the garlic mustard that is available to you. This recipe, however, provides an extremely simple and easy way to use a ton of garlic mustard in a delicious way. The pesto also freezes well, so it can be made in bulk and stored for later.
As for the ingredients, other than the garlic mustard, the rest will end up being the same as any other pesto. We’ll start with how to identify wild garlic mustard, and then dive into the recipe!
Identifying Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Identifying garlic mustard is easy, although it looks rather different during different stages of growth. When flowering it can be up to three feet tall, and develops small flowers with white petals on the tips of its long stalk.
Leaves are alternating and are heart to kidney-shaped, with scalloped edges. First-year plants grow in rosettes close to the ground, while second-year plants shoot up vertically, launching long and skinny stalks that can reach up to waist-height. Second-year plants tend to have pointier leaves as well.
Leaves on second-year plants are generally less bitter than leaves from first-year rosettes—however, that bit of extra bitterness works very well in pesto, so you don’t have to worry about only harvesting the first-year plants. In fact, I used exclusively first-year plants for the delicious pesto you see being made in this article.
For an easy test to confirm that you have found garlic mustard, crush some up between your fingers and give it a sniff. If it smells like onions or garlic, you have garlic mustard. There are no real poisonous lookalikes to speak of though some plants, like wild ginger, can appear similar if you aren’t super-familiar with the details yet.
Once this plant takes over an area, you might not see any other plants at all…just a field of garlic mustard between the trees. It’s actually an invasive species, and invasive plants like garlic mustard destroy the ability of native plants to thrive.
The good news is, being an invasive means that you can harvest as much of it as you want, with no risk at all of over-harvesting. In fact, by eradicating it completely, you’ll be doing all the plants and other creatures in your local ecosystem a big favor. So, while doing your part to remove invasive plants, why not make a killer pesto and throw a springtime dinner party while you’re at it?
Remember: Bitterness can be reduced by picking young plants.
Like any green, there are times when it takes on a level of bitterness. Garlic Mustard greens should be harvested when young.
Young leaves that are harvested earlier in the season are less bitter than any you will typically find. If you try to make this later in the Garlic Mustard growing season, you will have a higher level of bitterness.
A lot of readers have made this recipe with great success. The biggest complaint was that it was too bitter so it is worth repeating the advice to pick first-year plants early in the season. If your pesto still seems bitter then you may want to mix it with some store-bought pesto or similar in order to tone the flavor down and not waste what you made.
Once you’ve harvested your garlic mustard, wash the leaves and roots thoroughly and pat them dry. The following is a complete list of the minimal ingredients you’ll need for garlic mustard pesto but you can add other spices or ingredients as well. If you experiment it may be good to add ingredients to a small amount of the prepared pesto recipe shown below and write down what you did for future reference.
- 3 cups garlic mustard leaves
- 1 teaspoon garlic mustard root
- 2 large peeled, minced garlic cloves (for a truer forager’s pesto, use wild garlic, tripling or even quadrupling the amount and adding a few chopped leaves to compensate for the less strong flavor compared to store-bought garlic) Minced dried garlic could be used as well but fresh is always best. If you use dried minced garlic, allow the pesto a little time to set before consuming. This will help soften it up a bit.
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Additional Romano cheese to taste
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup pine nuts (some use walnuts, which are less pricey, but I prefer the flavor of pine nuts)
- Salt and pepper to taste
And now for the extremely simple process of making your pesto:
All you need is a food processor – a blender would probably work, but a food processor will work better, and is a great investment to enhance your kitchen toolkit regardless. A mortar and pestle could be used in a pinch for making small amounts. If you use a mortar and pestle you may just want to blend the cheese into the mix in a separate bowl.
Simply add all dry ingredients except for the cheese into your food processor and blend, slowly adding olive oil as you process the dry components and you start getting the consistency you want.
Process the ingredients until all the oil is completely poured in and you have a thick, smooth pesto sauce. Note that the suggested proportion of olive oil is my suggestion. Some people like a thicker or thinner pesto sauce, but I like mine a little bit on the thicker end. If you don’t have olive oil you can substitute sunflower oil or grapeseed oil but olive oil is definitely my first choice. Finally, salt and pepper to taste. Then use or freeze as quickly as possible so it stays fresh!
There are many modifications and experiments you can do once you’re comfortable with the basic recipe. For example, if you like, you can try reducing the amount of garlic mustard you use, and replace some of it with traditional basil.
Another modification some folks enjoy is adding a couple of pinches of parsley to the mix or even adding a little lemon peel. For me, the simpler recipe above is hard to improve upon, but it’s always fun to experiment with different proportions and flavors.
For another example, the well-known northeastern forager known as “Wildman” Steve Brill incorporates ½ cup of mild miso and some other additions into his garlic mustard pesto recipe.
Garlic mustard pesto puts a quick nail in the coffin of the misconception that foraged plants are difficult to incorporate into delicious recipes. In addition to helping reduce the numbers of a highly invasive non-native plant, this is a recipe that will genuinely wow your friends and family with its rich deliciousness regardless of how you use it. Give it a try!
Let us know in the comments below what adaptations you have tried in this recipe. There are other cheeses that could be added. Just make sure it is a drier white cheese for best results.
Substituting a cup of garlic mustard with spinach would make a great fresh pesto. Add in a few cherry tomatoes and your favorite pasta for a delicious meal that tastes great hot or cold. Pesto is particularly good with penne pasta.
For an interesting twist on pizza, use a little garlic mustard pesto on white sauce and chicken pizzas.
Do you know of any other invasive plants that make a great pesto?
Author Bio: Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
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