Field Guide: In the Weeds

Making the most of garlic mustard

By Iliana Regan

Editor’s note: This is the last of three spring edible field guides from chef Iliana Regan, one of the Midwest’s most famous foragers. (She’ll be back with three more this summer!) This is also the last regular Midwesterner newsletter available to non-paying subscribers. If you like what we’re doing, please consider supporting us by subscribing. You don’t want to miss Monday’s story, an ode to a “simple, bold, and mysterious” corporate logo from DeKalb, Illinois, native Josh Modell, former editor-in-chief of The A.V. Club and editorial director of Onion, Inc.

Last night, the final supermoon of the year bathed the woods a chlorine blue.

If you’re a forager like me, you’re probably used to scanning the forest floor for direction. Last night, you could have looked up. The fifth full moon of the year is also called the flower moon, because it rises when spring plants should be in full bloom in this part of the world—plants including wood hyacinth, crocus, dandelion, violet, and a rangy invasive called garlic mustard that overruns the woods each spring.

If you already know garlic mustard, you may not be a fan. It’s a pernicious, self-pollinating weed, the bane of farmers and conservationists, with each new stalk seeding up to six hundred more. No matter where in the country you live, chances are it’s growing near you. It has serrated, heart-shaped leaves, and flowers with four white petals each. The crowns mimic those of its brassica relatives, including broccoli, kale, and mustard, which it resembles in flavor and aroma. If you pick a leaf and rub it between your fingers, you will immediately understand how it got its common name.

You might encounter garlic mustard in a shady corner of your backyard or under the honeysuckle bushes on your street, but I recommend harvesting it from the woods, mostly for safety reasons, though it’s also been said that the less sunlight garlic mustard plants get, the less bitter they taste. You will taste some bitter twang regardless. I like that bitterness, so I don’t mind eating a salad of raw garlic mustard, but blanching the greens will make them sweeter, softer, and more digestible. Chop the greens and add them to cottage cheese for a snack, or, if you’re feeling more ambitious, to ricotta for a filled pasta. Add them to a stir-fry, or bring some foraged flavor to a traditional steakhouse dinner by creaming them like spinach.

Recently, I topped a pizza, leavened with wild yeast, with salt-and-oil-massaged garlic mustard, along with violets, redbud flowers, and morels. It was satisfying, for my stomach but also for my heart and mind. For me, gathering and eating wild ingredients is a spiritual experience. Maybe that’s a feeling we inherited from our ancestors. Take the time to find garlic mustard and the other spring harvests I’ve covered this week, morels and violets, and you might be surprised by how deeply they nourish your soul.

Iliana Regan is the chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago and the “eccentric bed and breakfast” Milkweed Inn, located in the Hiawatha National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is the author of the memoir Burn the Place, longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award. You can find her in the woods.