Despite late, unwanted snowfalls, spring has arrived, bringing optimism, birdsong and new life to our fields and streams. As soon as the earth wakes up, it immediately stars putting forth its bounty. In the garden, rhubarb, angelica, sorrel and mint rouse us from our root vegetable slumber and, out in the wild, tender tips of ramps, Japanese knotweed and field garlic present the first vivid glimpses of green. If you’ve never tried eating directly from nature’s pantry, perhaps this is the year you’ll venture into new terrain. There is a distinct thrill in finding food in the wilderness—it’s free, it’s packed with nutrition and it’s unusually delicious. (Note to newbies: Go with a mentor or consult a plant book to positively identify anything before consuming it. Always remember, when in doubt, throw it out!) The recent popularity of ramps has made foraging for them the subject of some controversy, but this is not the case with field garlic and knotweed, since both are highly invasive species. Gather them freely without fear of disturbing the ecosystem.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), a vigorous plant that was coveted in Victorian times for the delicate sprays of white flowers it produces in late summer, is considered among the most problematic invasive plants in this country. It spreads quickly and often takes over roadsides and riverbanks. Despite its bamboo-like appearance, it’s actually related to buckwheat, as is rhubarb, with which it shares hollow stalks and mouth-puckering astringency. The tender shoots make the best eating, so harvest them at about 6 to 8 inches, and use them in both sweet and savory preparations. They can be gently steamed and served with a rich hollandaise sauce to counter their lemony tartness, or pureed with a little cream into a piquant sauce for pasta. Roast them with strawberries and orange zest, then bake into a pie or serve as a compote with vanilla ice cream. Larger stalks are also edible, but peel off the stringy outer layer before cooking. With plenty of sugar, they make a wonderful marmalade.
Field garlic (Allium vineale) is another invasive species you have doubtless trampled underfoot while walking on local paths and meadows. It grows in linear clumps that can look like grass from a distance, but its leaves are round and hollow. The easiest way to identify field garlic, however, is with your nose. When crushed, it exudes the unmistakable and pungent scent of garlic. Use the tender, young leaves as you would chives, perfect as a savory garnish. The bulbs—which tend to be less than an inch in diameter—are delicious grilled, pureed and pickled. I like to use the whole plant to make a pesto with a few pine nuts, some good olive oil and a little Parmesan. In fact, in combination with the knotweed sauce, this makes for an incomparable plate of pasta that just might drive you wild.
Field Garlic Pesto
Makes about 1 cup
1 handful field garlic (bulbs & tender greens), well cleaned and roots trimmed
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup olive oil
Squeeze of fresh lemon
Salt, to taste
In a food processor or blender, pulse field garlic with pine nuts and cheese until well broken down. With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil until incorporated and you have a thick, smooth paste. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding a bit of salt or more cheese, as needed.
Fusilli with Japanese Knotweed Sauce & Field Garlic Pesto
Makes 2 hearty portions
8 cups tender Japanese knotweed shoots, washed, trimmed of any leaves and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup heavy cream
Sea salt, to taste
1/2 pound fusilli, or pasta of your choice
Grated Parmesan, to taste
Field Garlic Pesto (recipe to the left)
Bring 2 large pots of water to the boil and salt them well. Into the first, add the knotweed. Cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. (Test with a fork; do not undercook.) Drain and transfer to a food processor or blender.
Now, drop the pasta into the second pot of boiling water. Cook to al dente texture, according to package instructions.
Add butter and cream to the knotweed and puree until smooth. If there are any annoying fine strings, you can push sauce through a fine mesh strainer.
Transfer sauce to a large skillet and keep on very low heat. When the pasta is done, drain well. (Reserve a little of the pasta water in case you need to thin the sauce.) Add pasta to the skillet and toss to coat well with the sauce.
Divide between two bowls and garnish with a large dollop of Field Garlic Pesto and a generous sprinkling of grated Parmesan.