You may not think of winter as a time to write a post about fresh herbs, but that’s exactly why these beauties below fit into our Feasting in Times of Winter Scarcity series. Winter may seem like the hardest time to find fresh herbs, making us all resort to those horrible clam shell herb containers at the store where you pay five dollars for a bundle of herbs you know you could grow so easily in the summer or find a bundle four times that size for half the price at your local farmers’ market.
This may lead you to attempt growing herbs indoors, something I have had mixed success with, often resulting in scraggly, slow-growing plants.
Alternatively, you may notice that many of your perennial herbs, although slow growing, live on outdoors well beyond the first frost date. The piles of mint, onion grass, bee balm, catmint, and lemon balm below were all picked in January, well after many frosts.
Another option is to attempt a cold frame or low tunnel outdoors to keep a few small stashes of herbs growing through the winter. Cilantro does particularly well in that environment, like my little almost-picked-to-death cilantro in my low tunnel below.
If none of these options sound appealing to you, don’t count out the wild herbs! Below are two of the most common wild herbs you’ll find around – two that I’ll bet you’ve either eaten or at least crushed and smelled before – noting their aromatic properties but hesitating to cook with them. Why hesitate?
Onion Grass (aka Wild Garlic)
When I first moved down here, I remember someone pointing out “onion grass” to me, and I thought, no no, that’s just chives that have gone rogue into someone’s yard. I didn’t realize that chives had a more wild cousin that really likes to get around. It’s an easy mistake to make, and a happy one! Because it shows how interchangeable the two can be in cooking – why spend $4.99 on that clamshell of “fresh chives” when you probably have a patch of onion grass in your lawn you’ve been trying to eradicate for years?
Description and Habitat. “Onion grass” grows in clumps of green chive-like tops with a bulb at its base made of several smaller “cloves,” much like garlic. You can find it in just about any lawn or field or along any roadside. The strong onion/garlic scent is a good indicator that you have the right plant.
Harvest. To harvest, you can simply cut off whatever leaves you need. Feel free to give it a full haircut; it will grow back. Alternatively, if you want to harvest the bulb below, you can pull up the whole plant. Just be sure to leave a couple bulbs from the clump in the ground so you can come back to your spot in years to come.
Flavor and Use. You can use the grass like you would chives, and the bulbs like you would garlic (although their small size makes this difficult). The grass itself is much more garlicky than chives, so I like to use it to lend that flavor to some classically garlicky uses – like this pesto below and the seasoned salt at the end of the post.
Wild Greens & Nuts Pesto
Warning: This pesto is addictive! You will scoop it on everything, and if you take it to a party, it will not come back with you. It may just be my favorite wild food recipe I have under my belt so far…
2-3 handfuls of wild garlic greens, roughly chopped
2-3 handfuls of wild cress greens
1-2 handfuls of wild nuts (hickory, pecan, and/or black walnut)
2 large pinches salt
Combine wild garlic greens and wild cress in a food processor with wild nuts of your choosing. Salt well.
Pulse until they are well mixed, and then begin to drizzle in olive oil while the food processor runs. I like mine heavy on the olive oil until the mixture turns from looking like separate ingredients into a smooth creamy paste, as the oil emulsifies into a totally different texture (see picture above – there’s nothing dry or leafy about that pesto!).
Scoop into a bowl and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, some wild leaves, and/or nuts.
Note: if you don’t have a chance to forage wild herbs for this, arugula and garlic with sunflower seeds will make another delicious version.
One of my uncles was visiting a few months ago, helping us out on some backyard constructions projects. When those were in ship shape, he asked, now what are you going to do about all this ground ivy? (Our entire back “lawn” is ground ivy). To which I replied, eat it! We love our ground ivy lawn… it’s beautiful covered in purple flowers in spring, durable, and smells delightfully herby when you walk on it or mow it.
Even better yet, you can eat it, and it’s tasty! It could have made it into our Wild Winter Teas post, as it’s a member of the mint family, high in vitamin C, and brews a good cup. But I like it even better featured as an herb for cooking. Historically, it was used for eating, as medicine, in the beer making process by Saxons before hops were introduced, and by various other peoples in cheese making as a substitute for rennet. How versatile!
Description and Habitat. Ground ivy grows in trailing runners up to about four inches tall. Leaves are roughly heart-shaped and scalloped (see picture above), stems are square shaped (due to its membership in the mint family), and it gets small purple flowers in spring. Ground ivy gives off a distinctly herby, almost minty sent when crushed. You’ll find it in your lawn, along greenways and roadsides, and in fields, particularly where it is somewhat cooler and shady.
Harvest. You can pull up entire runners of ground ivy or snip off individual leaves. I generally “harvest” when weeding it out of my vegetable beds. Ground ivy is considered a non-native invasive species in the U.S., so harvest away!
Flavor and Uses. Ground ivy has a scent/flavor somewhere between mint and a mild, greener rosemary. You can put it in soups and salads, make tea out of it, or use it as a fresh or dried herb. The flowers look particularly pretty in salads in spring.
Wild Seasoned Salt Rub
This recipe for wild seasoned salt has about a million and one uses. Rub it on chicken, lamb, or beef before roasting. Toss it with pasta and Parmesan for a great side; add white beans, and it’s a main course. Dry it and bottle it for a unique wild holiday gift! Another bonus: this is one more way to use your citrus peels. Zest peels before juicing (it’s very difficult to do after) and dry to be used later in seasoning rubs like this one or in desserts.
Zest of 2 lemons, grated
1 bunch of Ground Ivy leaves
1 bunch of Onion Grass
2 Tbsp Sea Salt
If using immediately, mince ground ivy and onion grass and combine with lemon zest and salt (pepper optional).
If you’d like to dry and store this as a wild seasoned salt, dry grated lemon zest, whole ground ivy, and onion grass (in your oven or toaster oven on its lowest setting is one good way).
Crumble ground ivy and onion grass (or pulse in a coffee grinder), and combine with dried lemon zest and sea salt.
Store in an airtight container somewhere dark and cool. Use as you would the fresh version.