I’m going wild again, just like I did last year. My suburban wildness — if such a thing is possible — centers on a simple spring ritual that starts in mid-April and continues through mid-May: harvesting dandelion greens at their young and tender best.
For my neighbors who watch the spectacle, I suspect it’s a curiosity the likes of which most folks don’t see anymore: a grown man crawling around on the ground on his hands and knees with a sharp knife in one hand and a colander in the other. Although wild dandelion greens can be found throughout my yard, I’ve discovered that the best ones grow in the wildest of places, safe from the punishing foot traffic of my three boys and the whir of the lawn mower blade.
The wildest spot in my yard is behind our house under the protective canopy of 50-foot pines. The trees were planted years ago as a natural border between my yard and our neighbor’s. As they’ve grown, they’ve created a fringe forest ecosystem. The soil there is particularly rich due to the accumulation and decomposition of pine needles and windswept autumn leaves. Just enough sunlight passes through for dandelions and other opportunistic plants to thrive.
Although these wild dandelion greens are only 30 yards from my back door, my path to discovering them was not so direct. In fact, it veered off course by about 3,000 miles to the east. I learned the pleasures of eating dandelion salads in Europe from my Belgian mother-in-law, known as “Mami” by my sons. Mami grew up on a small family farm in the foothills of the Ardennes mountain range. Although the nearby battles of World War II were over by the time she was born, the wartime thrift mentality held fast in Europe throughout her childhood. The thinking was that if the land was prepared to offer up free food in the form of salad greens, mushrooms and berries, one would be silly to refuse.
Embraced throughout human history and across cultures and cuisines, the dandelion has been cast as public enemy No. 1 in postwar, suburban America. An estimated 80 million pounds of pesticides are used each year on home lawns to eradicate them. Yet each year, the scrappy plant returns, thumbing its sunny yellow nose.
For me, letting my dandelions grow wild and pesticide-free is not just about frugality and ecology, but also gastronomy. Food writers often say that the best foods are those with a sense of time and place. I love these bitter greens as much as I do because I know the ground they come from and appreciate that they only come once a year. They also serve as a useful reminder that good foods are closer than we may think, even as close as our own back yard.
All parts of the dandelion are edible and have medicinal and culinary uses. It has long been used as a liver tonic and diuretic. In addition, the roots contain inulin and levulin, starchlike substances that may help balance blood sugar, as well as bitter taraxacin, which stimulates digestion. Dandelion roots can be harvested during any frost-free period of the year and eaten raw, steamed, or even dried, roasted and ground into a coffee substitute. The flowers are best known for their use in dandelion wine, but they also can be added to a salad, made into jellies or dipped in batter to make dandelion fritters. The leaves are rich in potassium, antioxidants, and vitamins A and C. Dandelion greens can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, sautéed or braised. For use in salads, greens should be harvested from new plants while still small and tender, before the first flower emerges. Larger greens tend to be tougher and more bitter, and better suited for cooking.
While dandelions may well be nature’s most successful self-seeding plant, they don’t necessarily grow where you want them. Dandelion lovers can take the guesswork out of it by planting their own.
‘Clio’ is an Italian dandelion that produces high yields of upright greens that are easy to harvest (available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds). ‘Ameliore’ is a cultivated French strain of the common dandelion with broader leaves and a milder flavor than its outlaw cousin (available from The Cook’s Garden). Milano Chicory Melange is a salad mix that includes dandelion-like ‘Catalogna’ seeds as part of a colorful mix of red and green chicories (available from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds).
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