Craving something green and healthy? After more than a hundred inches of the frozen white stuff this winter, it's no wonder Wisconsinites are lusting after fresh asparagus, spinach, green onions and ramps. Still, in the case of one springtime shoot, be careful what you wish for. I'm talking about garlic mustard, the invasive transplant from Europe that thrives in the shaded woodlands of southern Wisconsin.
Officially known as Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard probably was introduced to North America by immigrants who enjoyed it as a salad green and herb. They also appreciated the plant's nutritive value - it is said to be high in vitamins C and A - at a time of year when veggies are hard to come by. What they didn't realize was how it would go wild in American habitats, blanketing forest floors and displacing native vegetation.
To combat the bully weed, environmental groups, park organizations and neighborhood associations sponsor garlic mustard "pulls," wherein volunteers remove garlic mustard from natural areas. (Unlike other wild edibles, garlic mustard is too much of a good thing, so overharvesting is not an issue.) Around here pulls are best scheduled in April and May, while the plant is in bloom but before it goes to seed and wreaks further havoc.
Turns out this is also the best time to "eat the problem," for now is when garlic mustard leaves are at their tastiest. Crushed, they release a pungent garlic smell, but the flavor is pleasantly bitter, garlicky and with an onion undertone. The raw leaves can be cut into strips and tossed with milder greens in a salad, or folded into omelets, scrambled eggs or mashed potatoes. They can be sautéed in butter or oil, simmered in soups or pureed into sauces.
Given garlic mustard's notoriety, recipes are hard to come by, but for cooking ideas and a chance to join like-minded locavores and weed warriors, check out the first annual Weed Feed on May 18. Sponsored by the Dudgeon-Monroe and Westmoreland neighborhood associations and held at Glenwood Children's Park from 1 to 4 p.m., the event will feature a weed pull plus free tastings of garlic mustard specialties created by Peter Robertson of RP's Pasta and Barbara Wright of the Dardanelles. Adventuresome amateur cooks may also cook up their own dishes; garlic mustard will be provided in advance for this, but any edible weed will be fair game as an ingredient.
To sample the Weed Feed dishes, you'll need to roll up your sleeves and either pull some weeds, prepare a dish or help organize the event. For more information, contact Peter Nause at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-1463.
Garlic mustard-spinach pizza with caramelized onions, blue cheese and walnuts
1 tablespoon butter 1 tablespoon olive oil 2 medium onions, thinly sliced salt and pepper 4-5 lightly packed cups spinach 4-5 lightly packed cups young garlic mustard leaves a 12-inch-round thin whole-wheat pizza crust 1/3 cup coarsely crumbled blue cheese (2-3 ounces) 1/4 cup walnut halves, coarsely broken up
Place a baking stone in oven (if you have one); heat oven to 425 degrees while you prepare the pizza. Heat butter and olive oil in large skillet over medium flame. Stir in onions; season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until onions are very limp, golden and sweet, 25-35 minutes. Meanwhile, rinse all the greens in a colander; place the damp leaves in a large pot over medium-high flame; cover and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes. Drain in colander and press to remove excess liquid. Coarsely chop the greens. Stir them into the cooked onions. Spread greens mixture over pizza crust. Place on hot baking stone or a baking sheet. Bake 6-8 minutes. Sprinkle with blue cheese and walnuts; bake another 3-5 minutes. Cut into squares or wedges and serve.