Cooking with an Invasive Species

You’ve heard the saying: “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But what about: “when you find invasive species, make pesto?”

Parks and nature centers all over the US recruit volunteers in spring to round up different invasive species and dispose of them in a way that will keep them from coming back. (In case you’re unsure as to why, here’s a link explaining the Problem with Invasive Species.) Though these plant species are harmful to our environment, it still sometimes seems a waste just to toss them — especially if they’re non-toxic and may even have nutritional value.

While working with the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in Cleveland, OH, The Greenhouse Tavern decided to use one of the invasive species in a recipe. Their species of choice? The garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard. Cooking with an Invasive Speices

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) grows in woodlands and yards throughout the east. It is related to mustard, not garlic, and has kidney-shaped leaves with scalloped edges that grow in low mounds. The leaves die back in the late spring and the plant sends up a stalk with pointier leaves and clusters of small white flowers. The easiest way to identify garlic mustard is by the strong garlicky odor it releases when you crush the leaves. It is believed that garlic mustard was brought from Europe as a food plant in the 1800s. It’s leaves, high in vitamins A and C, were boiled in soups and eaten in salads. How can this be bad?

Garlic mustard in the forest. Cooking with an Invasive Speices

Things went sour for garlic mustard when it escaped from the garden and started growing in the forest. Since this European plant has no natural predators in the US, it was able to thrive and out-compete native plants. It has displaced a native mustard called toothwort. Toothwort is important to the survival of the West Virginia white butterfly because it is the only host plant for this butterfly. If West Virginia whites lay their eggs on garlic mustard, the caterpillars typically die before reaching maturity due to the chemicals in garlic mustard. Garlic mustard spreads easily because each tiny flower produces hundreds of seeds. If you find this plant in your backyard (or neighborhood), you should pull it up to help protect the forest and West Virginia whites.

West Virginia White butterfly. Cooking with an Invasive Speices

And then make pesto!

Here’s what you’ll need:

1 head garlic
4 bunches garlic mustard
1 cup Marcona almonds
Extra virgin olive oil

Place all items in food processor.
Add olive oil until a thick paste is created.

Voila! Garlic mustard pesto.

Serve in salads, on toasted french bread, or tossed in your favorite pasta. Yum!

Garlic mustard pesto. Cooking with an Invasive Species

See also:
Invasive Species: What Everyone Needs to Know
“Food Under Your Feet” Cooking with Weeds. Culinary and Medicinal Uses of Invasive Weeds.

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