It’s around this time of the spring that you are likely to spot patches of wild garlic popping up in parks, woods, on waste ground, alongside footpaths… Pretty much everywhere, in fact, but in my own garden, my optimistic planting of wild garlic bulbs having come to naught. Last spring, it seemed I couldn’t move more than ten feet from my house without my nostrils being assailed by the distinctive, almost spring-oniony smell of Allium Ursinum, the scent which tells you a delicious foraged dinner can’t be too far away.
Last garlic season, I wasn’t very quick off the mark: I left my foraging until the end of May, by which point the garlic flowers were starting to go to seed, and the leaves, though tasty, were too tough to eat raw. This year, I decided to get a head start on things, and went for a garlic-hunting trip at the beginning of last week, scoring about half a carrier bag of tender young leaves. The plan was to make an initial batch of pesto, and then return just before the weekend to get another couple of handfuls for more experimental cooking or salad-making. Unfortunately, that was when the weather turned Arctic: we didn’t see the sort of snow that fell in other parts of the country here in South Wales, but let’s just say it wasn’t really ideal foraging weather. I’m planning to head out again with my bag next week: hopefully the garlic will have been tenacious enough to survive the cold.
I have a pile of garlic-related recipes I want to try out with my future pickings: my friend Liz’s Chicken in wild garlic leaves and pancetta is high on my to-cook list, as is the garlicky take on dolmades in the River Cottage Hedgerow book, although I’m planning to replace the rice the recipe calls for with some sort of wholegrain mixture: my pancreas could probably do with a break given the fact that I’ve spent the last few weeks eating pasta by the ton in order to keep warm.
As I noted above, though, my default position with wild garlic is to make pesto: it’s just too practical an option to ignore. Other than the obvious use as a pasta sauce, it makes an excellent sandwich filling or salad-dressing ingredient, it is delicious in a tart with goats’ cheese, with chicken or white fish, as a dip for breadsticks… You can store it in under oil in a jar in the fridge, or freeze it in portions for use later: it survives unscathed and defrosts in no time. I tend to freeze my pesto in a silicon mould intended for freezing portions of babyfood (it may be this very one): while I didn’t really make purées for Eoin, I find the tray is immensely handy for things like this. When the cubes are solid, I pop them out into a resealable freezer bag, and the tray is ready to be washed and re-used for the next batch. The recipe below is my default pesto recipe: the slightly eccentric measurement system is based on the fact that 125g of garlic leaves is roughly half a bagful, which is about the amount I pick before I start to get worried about not leaving enough for wildlife and for other foragers. The fear of overpicking is pretty unfounded in this case (wild garlic really does grow like a weed), but nonetheless it is important to be responsible about these things. You can, of course, use pine nuts in the pesto, but I experimented with a few different nut mixtures last year, and hazelnuts proved very tasty.
Wild Garlic and Hazelnut Pesto, and something to do with it
You will need:
- 125g wild garlic leaves, thoroughly washed and drained
- 50g parmesan, grated, chopped, crumbled or otherwise broken up
- 50g shelled hazelnuts (you could toast the nuts if you like, but I don’t)
- olive oil
This is about as simple as a recipe gets: the ratio is 1 part cheese and 1 part nuts to 2-and-a-bit parts garlic leaves. Pop the whole lot in a food processor with a generous pinch of salt, blend thoroughly, and add the olive oil a slug at a time until you achieve the consistency you desire: I know a lot of people prefer their pesto sloppy, but I tend to leave mine reasonably stiff, reasoning that I can always slacken it later if need be.
One of my favourite uses for my stored frozen pesto is to stuff a boned chicken thigh: I may have unconsciously adapted this from Liz’s recipe, above, or I may just be obsessed with stuffing things into chickens: who knows? Allow a couple of chicken thighs per person: one isn’t usually enough unless they are from a pretty enormous chicken. Bone the thighs, and place a single baton of frozen pesto inside each one (a dollop of fresh pesto tastes just as good, but tends to ooze out more during the cooking process: the frozen pesto has to thaw, and is therefore more likely to stay put). Wrap each thigh snugly in a piece of proscuitto, and bake them on a tray lined with baking parchment for about 30 minutes at 200C/Gas Mark 6.