Garlic mustard is abounding right now. I went out into my dead-looking back yard and, sure enough, if you bend down and take a close look in weedy areas--I've got lots of those!--there are hundreds of the small, green and violet, heart-shaped leaves distinctive to this plant.
Garlic mustard, also called jack-by-the-hedge, is an invasive European herb that overruns open woods and is also found in disturbed soil. It suppresses the growth of fungus and other desirable plants, and, because of its killer ways, many people pull it out whenever they see it. Since it tastes pretty good, and is incredibly nutritious, I think we might as well pull it out and eat it.
Garlic mustard is easy to identify and there are no poisonous look-alikes. This time of year it grows low to the ground--it's said that it can grow even under snow because the leaves contain natural anti-freezes. The scalloped-edged leaves are dark green on top and often tinged with violet. In the summer the plants will grow to three feet or so. When you find it, try a leaf—it smells and tastes just like a garlicky hot mustard.
To harvest garlic mustard this time of year, pull out the entire plant, including the root. Separate the root from the leaves, cutting just above the spot where the stems meet (the formation is called a basal rosette). Remove any discolored leaves, and taste leaves of various sizes to discover whether any might be too bitter, and remove those, too. Mycologist Gary Lincoff says that garlic mustard is at its best in the winter months--perhaps, like its cousin, kale, it gets mellower when growing in freezing conditions.
Garlic mustard leaves are just the thing to perk up bland winter salad greens, and they're great on sandwiches, too. Another name for the plant, sauce-alone, is a savory claim that holds up in the kitchen; the mustardy heat and bitterness is balanced by the pungent of garlic notes. Just add some olive oil, salt and pepper and toss with pasta, sprinkle on toasted bruschetta, or serve with fish, chicken or other meat. You don't want to cook the leaves much—they dissolve after more than five minutes of cooking. If you're adding them to cooked items, toss them in at the end and let the existing heat wilt the leaves. There's an easy recipe for a pasta and bean main dish below that's a nice, spicy supper for a cold spring evening.
Even the roots of garlic mustard are edible, and are known among the cognoscenti as wild horseradish (which is yet another spicy relative). Herbalist Susun Weed has a interesting recipe using garlic mustard roots to make flavored vinegar, which she recommends for salads and, medicinally, for sinus congestion. First, clean the roots up with water and vegetable brush. Chop them roughly, adding leaves and stems, if desired, and pack it all lightly into a non-metallic jar. Fill with cider vinegar and top with a non-metallic lid. Now, the fun part—magically, over the next few hours, a bright red center appears in the cut sections of the roots and a red pigment wafts out into the vinegar, tinting it pink. The vinegar is ready to use immediately, or you can let it steep for stronger flavor.
When foraging, take care to correctly identify plants and fungi. There are plenty of authoritative sources online and in books.