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Spring Mugwort: Loathe the Weed, Love the Delicacy

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Spring Mugwort: Loathe the Weed, Love the Delicacy

March 18, 2024

Spring is sprung, the mugwort is riz (at least in Brooklyn, New York). I wonder where the mower is? The first, silvery tufts of spring mugwort have emerged after winter in a flocked carpet that is visible from a distance. Their arrival, while nights still hold a hard chill, is met with joy, indifference, or despair, depending on who you are, where you are, and, if you’re a professional horticulturist, who you work for. While Artemisia vulgaris (and some very similar species) is a botanical super-invader in North America, it is also a very useful herb. It is one of the first perennials to break ground, and feathery spring mugwort is a delicate and sustainable wild treat, inspiring that joy for cooks sensitive to the changing of the seasons. Collect a tender bagful, and make a meal to accompany a conversation about the situation.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Spring mugwort emerging in a lawn.

Mugwort is a perennial plant that spreads via undergound stolons. It also germinates from seeds very easily, as I have learned after shaking out my late summer forage-basket on our terrace and seeing miniature mugworts pop up in my pots in the spring. The plant is hard to control and exceptionally difficult to remove where it has invaded wild, natural areas. It out-thugs even tenacious native plants like common milkweed. But it is a useful and welcome fresh or dried herb; and, at this time of year, it qualifies as an ephemeral vegetable.

Above: The first spring mugwort leaves are very tender.

Spring mugwort, if you spin the story just right, is a pretty edible treat. (The spin is to emphasize that foraging for mugwort does the environment where it is invasive no harm, whatsoever.) Unlike its late summer iteration, which is chewy, potent, and pungent, the leaves of early mugwort are very tender and very mild in flavor.

Above: A pot of beans, loaded with aromatics and spring mugwort.

In the bean stew recipe that follows, spring mugwort is blanched in the cooking broth, before being added as a green vegetable garnish to the beans. This stew can be eaten in three ways. Way One: As is, as a rustic, nourishing soup-stew. Way Two: The flavor is intensified exponentially when the beans are drained and the broth is reduced to a glaze. Eat beans in rich glazed broth. Way Three: Once the broth is reduced, the beans are turned into a creamy purée whose foundation is that umami-heavy glaze.

Above: Mugwort blanching in the reduced cooking broth.
Above: Once blanched, the spring mugwort sprigs adorn the velvety beans.
Above: The beans can also be puréed to make a portable vegan pâté (here garnished with garlic mustard).
Above: Spring mugwort and bean pâté on focaccia.

Spring Mugwort and Gigante Bean Stew

Serves 4 as a stew, or makes 3 cups of pâté.

Other wild herbs in this slow stew include invasive field garlic-slash-onion-grass-slash-lawn-chives (Allium vineale) and native ramp leaves (Allium tricoccum). Chives are a good substitute for the field garlic, and you can learn to salt and dry the required ramp leaves if you hurry to the ramp chapter in my book Forage, Harvest, Feast. But you may also use garlic salt as an effective substitute. About the beans. You can substitute any dry bean, but I really like to soak them for two days. I know that a slow cooker yields a soft bean, quickly, but the slow soaking seems (to me) to deliver a bean with a firm but silky texture.

I use organic gigante beans (from Greece) by Simpli ($8.99 for 12 ounces)

  • 12 oz dry gigante beans, soaked for 48 hours, water changed twice
  • Vegetable broth to cover the beans by 2 inches (will depend on your pot—about 8-10 cups)
  • 2 oz field garlic, tied in a bundle
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 1 bunch scallions, tied in a bundle
  • 1 head garlic, intact, tops sliced off to expose cloves
  • 8 fresh bay leaves
  • 2 cups spring mugwort tips, washed
  • 1/3 cup dried, salted ramp leaves (substitute 1 teaspoon garlic salt)
  • 3 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ramp leaf salt, or 1 teaspoon table salt

Drain the soaked beans. Place them in a large pot and cover with the broth (it should cover them by 2 inches). Add field garlic, onion, scallions, garlic, bay leaves, 1 cup of the mugwort, and the salted ramp leaves if using, or garlic salt. Bring the liquid to a brief boil over high heat. Reduce the heat at once, to maintain a gentle simmer for 1 ½ hours. Turn off the heat and allow to cool until tepid. Strain out the beans and their aromatics and return the liquid to the pot. Transfer the beans to a bowl. Remove and discard the bay leaves, the field garlic and the scallion bundles. Squeeze the soft garlic from its skins, and add the garlic to the beans.

Bring the strained broth in the pot to a boil over high heat. Drop into it  the remaining 1 cup of mugwort, for 1 minute. Scoop out the blanched leaves with a large perforated spoon, and reserve. Continue to boil the broth until it is syrupy and reduced by about three-quarters of its volume—this creates an intense, rich flavor.

You may serve the beans at room temperature with this concentrated broth poured over them, or heat the beans in it gently, to serve hot.

Alternatively, make this vegan pâté: Transfer the beans with their reduced, syrupy broth to a food processor. Add ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice and whizz until smooth.

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