Now is the perfect time to forage for spring greens. Even in the city there are delicious new shoots to be found if you look in the right places. This will come as a special blessing to hardcore locavores eager for a change from last year’s potatoes and frozen spinach. One of the great things about foraging is the food is free. In fact, both of today’s featured species are usually regarded as weeds. Pests or not, they grow abundantly around here and can be harvested without qualms.
Around these parts, nobody will object to you taking as much of this plant as you want. Alliaria petiolata is considered an invasive exotic. Maybe we should reevaluate our hatred of non-native plants. However, garlic mustard has the additional annoying characteristic of suppressing mycorrhizal fungi beneficial to many native plants, particularly trees. However you look at it, eating garlic mustard is good.
Garlic mustard has heart-shaped, sharply toothed leaves and a custer of small white flowers at the top of the stem. It smells like garlic when crushed. City dwellers in Eastern North America may find it along roadsides, semi-shaded parkland and as a common garden weed. It is native to Europe and Asia.
The plant is mildly bitter with a slight garlic flavour easily lost to heat or drying, so it is best used immediately and served fresh. Add the tender leaves to a salad. They can also be lightly steamed and used in any recipe calling for spinach or other greens.
Many people who have encountered stinging nettles consider it best avoided. It stands to reason any plant so well defended must be highly nutritious. Urtica dioica is very high in magnesium and calcium, and also a good source of vitamins A, B, C, D, K, niacin, iron, potassium and zinc. It has a much higher protein content than most leafy green vegetables.
If you try to handle this plant with bare hands you will quickly wish you had not. Small hairs on steam and leaf undersides inject histamines and other chemicals that sting. Plastic surgical gloves or garden gloves provide adequate protection.
This week I harvested nettle shoots along the bank of the Eramosa River. They can also be found in ditches, ravines and waste places. The leaves soon become tough, but the top two or three pairs of leaves can be harvested before green flower clusters appear.
Cooking eliminates the stingers. Nettles are traditionally boiled, but I would rather avoid losing any of those nutrients. I steamed them just until limp in a bamboo steamer. Microwaving would work just as well. Nettles taste like spinach and can be substituted in any recipe.
North American Native Peoples relied on nettles for spring nutrition because they sprouted earlier than most plants. The Italians commonly make pesto d’urtica, otherwise known as nettle pesto. Here is how I made it.
Enough fresh nettles to fill a bamboo steamer
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
3 cloves garlic or more
1/4 cup olive oil
Steam the nettles until just wilted then allow them to cool slightly. Pulse nettles, pine nuts, cheese and garlic together in a food processor until finely chopped and combined. Add olive oil while blending until desired consistency is reached. To make pesto traditionally, instead use a mortar and pestle. Serve with fresh pasta.
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