Spring greens are starting to emerge out of the ground and it's the perfect time to pick them while their flavours are still tender and fresh. Foraging is one of my favourite ways to incorporate 'wild foods' into my daily life. Eating the 'weeds' is a wonderful way to connect to the natural world and to increase nutrition with wild foods being much higher in nutrients than their tamed, conventional counterparts. One of the first wild foods I collect is garlic mustard. In today's recipe, I've fermented it along with parsley and basil to make a Fermented Wild Pesto that will preserve the nutrients and flavour for several months.
There's already many places to find wild foods in your day. From the dandelion leaves in your lettuce mix to herbal teas to the pills and creams in your medicine cabinet, the medicinal and nutritional uses of wild plants and 'weeds' are an important part of our lives. The difference being that generations ago, we would have picked many of these on our own by adding them to our gardens or finding them in the woods nearby. For me, foraging has been a powerful way for me to connect not only to nature, but also to my ancestral roots. I imagine a great-great grandparent who went, basket in hand, into the woods to find the first greens after a long winter.
Garlic mustard is an invasive in our area. It crowds out our native plants and can be difficult to eradicate. Unlike slow-growing natives (like wild leeks, aka, ramps), this plant can be picked freely. Forage far and wide! Native to Europe and parts of Asia, this plant is found along roadsides, in fields, and on the forest floor. Because it’s invasive, you’ll usually see it take over an area and create a little green carpet in the early spring. In the first year of growth, plants have a rosette of leaves. This aromatic plant will release a garlic odour when the leaves are bruised. In the second year, the plant grows taller with triangular and heart-shaped leaves and grows a long taproot with a horseradish-like flavour. We eat the tender leaves, tossing them in salads and sautéing them with veggies or eggs to add a mild garlic flavour. The leaves becomes more pungent and bitter as the seasons progress so Spring is the perfect time to collect large bunches and preserve them for later use. You can freeze, dehydrate or ferment them. Later in the season, we collect the root and add it to our horseradish and collect the seeds to add to our mustards.
If you're new to foraging, bring an experienced friend with you. Please don't pick plants you haven't 100% ID'ed!
Fermenting herbs is a great way to preserve the fresh flavour that's lost when we dehydrate them into dried spices. You can easily ferment whole leaves that you can then chop up before adding to cooking like we often do with wild leeks. Or you can chop them up and ferment them as a pesto.
bunches of herbs, leaves and tender stems (I used roughly equal amounts of garlic mustard, basil and parsley)
Wash herbs and spin or pat dry. If using foraged herbs, give them a soak for a few minutes, changing the soaking water at least once to remove any dirt.
Add herbs to a blender or food processor and pulse until finely chopped. You can also mince by hand.
Add a little sea salt and stir to distribute (either directly in the bowl of the food processor or transferring chopped herbs to a bowl). A rough guideline is 1/4 tsp sea salt per 1/4 lb of herbs.
The salt will begin to pull water out of the herbs, creating a brine.
Transfer herbs to a clean glass jar and press down to remove any air pockets. I use wide-mouthed canning jars for most of my ferments because it's easy to fit a weight inside. Placing a weight on top keeps the herbs submerged under the brine. An anaerobic (oxygen free) environment is essential for fermenting. I used a piece of wax paper to hold the herbs down and a glass jar filled with water on top to act as a weight.
Place inside a shallow dish to catch any overflow of brine and set aside to ferment for 3-10 days or even longer if you prefer. Check your ferment daily to make sure herbs are still under the brine, pressing down on your weight if necessary to release more liquid.
As the pesto ferments, the bacteria will create the acids that preserve the herbs. These acids are the characteristic tangy flavour of fermented foods. The longer you let your pesto ferment, the stronger the acidic flavour will become. I left ours out for 7 days. Once fermented to your liking, remove the weight and seal with a tight-fitting lid and store in the fridge. Your pesto will keep for several months.
When ready to use, then add remaining pesto ingredients, like extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, lemon rind and juice. If you've used garlic mustard, you probably won't need to add garlic!
Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoy the Spring season and have fun eating your weeds!