Tuesday, May 11, 2021 8:50 AM
Foraging for the triumvirate of spring edibles — fiddleheads, ramps and dandelions — is in full flood. While we haven’t found any fiddleheads or ramps, dandelions, the most accessible of greens, have been on the menu for several weeks. As they first emerged, the tender leaves were added to salads. Once the plants matured, beginning to blossom in warmer spots, they became pot greens. Even when they do blossom and conventional wisdom says they’ll be too bitter to eat, you can usually find tasty younger plants in deeper grass or in shaded fringes of wooded areas. With the focus on boosting immune systems during this past year, taking advantage of a free, organic spring tonic by eating dandelion greens seems like a no-brainer. If you’re heading out for a walk or hike, tuck a bag and knife in your pocket and you can head home with freshly harvested greens. Just be certain you’re foraging in an area where there’s no pollution from pesticides or animal wastes.
Dandelions are found just about everywhere.Wherever humans have set foot, dandelions have become naturalized in disturbed areas, ranging from vacant lots to our front lawns. Native to Eurasia, this non-native species has followed humans around the world and can even be found in Alaska. Despite their ubiquitous nature, dandelions never seem to become invasive, although they may appear to be so to those in love with perfect green lawns. If you are a lover of the green velvet lawn, try to resist eradicating those cheerful yellow blossoms that are fast appearing. Remember: bees need the dandelions as an early source of nectar and pollen, and you will need those bees in your garden as the season progresses. However, while bees need dandelions, dandelions do not need bees. They can reproduce by a process called apomixis, the seeds developing without pollination. Each new dandelion is genetically identical to the parent plant. These seeds are wind dispersed, as anyone blowing the fuzz off a dandelion seedhead knows. If you can, hold off mowing while dandelions are in bloom. The ecosystem will thank you for it.
When foraging, I like to dig around a dandelion root with a knife so that the whole plant holds together for easier cleaning. I soak and sort several times, always finding bits of grass or yellowed leaves to toss out before finally rinsing the greens in a colander and then wrapping them a towel to store them away in a plastic bag or repurposed salad clamshell.
My Italian grandmother liked to cook the trimmed-up plants still joined at the root, even when they had tiny buttons of blossoms buried in their base. She sauted them in olive oil with garlic and hot peppers until wilted, then served them up as a side dish. Most cooks like to diffuse dandelion greens’ bitterness, either by pairing them with sweet flavors like balsamic vinegar or honey, or with the piquant flavors of garlic, chilis, peppers, or onions, usually finishing with a splash of acid from vinegar or lemon juice. In our house, some family members think they don’t like dandelion greens, so I mix them with equal amounts of other greens like spinach or chard and there are no complaints.
How to use your bounty? Here are two recipes I’ve tried and liked this season.
D A N D E L I O N A N D L E N T I L S O U P
- 1 cup lentils, picked over and rinsed
- 4 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 knob of ginger, peeled and finely grated
- 1 large bunch dandelion greens, washed and chopped
- 4 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put lentils in a medium pot with 9 cups water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat oil in a medium skillet, add onions, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring often, until onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Add onion mixture, dandelion greens, lemon juice, cumin and red pepper to lentils. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, until greens are tender, about 20 minutes.
C R E A M Y D A N D E L I O N P A S T A
- 1 pound small pasta (I used mini-farfalle, but fusilli or penne are fine)
- 4 slices bacon
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 6-8 cups fresh dandelion greens roughly chopped (use part spinach or chard if preferred)
- 1 cup milk
- 1⁄2 cup pasta cooking water
- 4 oz. cream cheese
- 1⁄4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley (I used chives; either is good)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until al dente. Reserve some of the pasta water for the sauce before draining. In a large skillet cook bacon until crispy. Transfer to a paper towel to drain, then crumble into small pieces once cooled. Sauté chopped onion in the bacon grease until translucent. Add garlic and sauté one more minute, then stir in the chopped dandelions and cook until starting to wilt. Add in the milk, reserved pasta water and cream cheese and stir until cheese is melted. Stir in grated parmesan, salt and pepper and crumbled bacon. Simmer sauce until it starts to thicken. Add the pasta and stir to combine. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and pass extra Parmesan when serving.
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