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Just Dandy: Served Wilted or Fresh, Dandelions for the Win

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Just Dandy: Served Wilted or Fresh, Dandelions for the Win

Seen through the critical lens of weeds, dandelions are perhaps the most familiar nuisance plant of all. Seen through the appreciative lens of food, they are a welcome and fresh spring ingredient. You don’t have to be a forager to recognize the new, lion-toothed leaves (dent-de-lion is the French etymology) emerging from their overwintering crowns in spring. A few weeks later, dandelions’ bright flowers, rayed like miniature suns, set fields, lawns, and path edges ablaze. Soon, their silky parachute-seeds drift off—the threat (or promise) of more.

Instead of reaching for the Roundup, let’s rewind, rewild, and re-set our dandelion clocks to appreciate this useful plant.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Let them grow? Or mow?

Dandelions are one of the bitter herbs of Passover, and in Gaza today, dandelions, along with other hardy “weeds” like common mallow, feed the hungry. An edible plant valued at least since the Ancients ate them as a tonic, dandelions are associated with a solid repertoire of traditional recipes. Dive into cookbooks and websites from countries ranged around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and you will find them on plates of wilted greens annointed with olive oil and caramelized onions, in yeasted pies and meaty stews, and in reassuringly simple salads.

Above: Early-blooming dandelions give bees a boost.

A bee-friendly PSA: While dandelions are good to eat if you are human, their flowers are also a boon to bees. Their bloom time varies according to regional seasonal differences, so consider not mowing your lawn (and lobby your local municipality or park not to mow either) when they bloom in your area.

Lean more about No-Mow May at Bee City USA.

Above: Dandelion crowns include the base of the plant, leaves, buds, and flowers.
Above: Early spring’s dandelion crowns wilting in a hot pan with oil.

Early spring’s dandelion crowns are the whole basal rosette of the plant, sliced just above the root. Harvested before the more uncompromising bitterness of the mature leaves has developed, the crowns are a crunchy and mild vegetable, and succulent treat.

While the crowns can be eaten raw in salads, they are also easy to wilt entire in a pan of warm oil. My favorite spring snack is a quick cicchetti-like bite of sautéed dandelions atop good bread, with some field garlic to add a pungent bite. They can also be added whole to familiar dishes from almost any culinary genre: East Asian noodle bowls, Southeast Asian-style curries, Italian-inspired spaghetti (with bottarga), Senegalese maafe, South African bredies. Willing, and wilted, the dandelions add an additional layer of flavor to any of these meals, along with a healthy dose of minerals and antioxidants.

Above: Wilted dandelion crowns tossed into pad thai.
Above: Tender dandelion leaves.

As they grow larger, dandelion leaves grow bolder in flavor. If you embrace chicories and bitter greens, this will not bother you. But if you nurse a resentment towards those earthy undertones, a quick blanch in boiling water mutes the bitterness. The greens are then ready for a cornucopia of creations, from fillings for phyllo and yeasted dough pies (turn to Turkey and Greece if you are recipe-hunting), to mineral-rich side dishes like hindbeh topped with caramelized onions or mingled with tahini (visit Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian sources for recipes).

Above: Soy chicken with dandelion and sweet potato (recipe from my book Forage, Harvest, Feast).
Above: Dandelion flower and chickweed quiches.

Dandelion flowers conjure up dreamy images of dandelion wine (especially if you’ve read Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, where an unforgettable, elderly and expert fermenter brews wine fanatically). For me, because of their mild flavor and appealing texture, they are more interesting as a vegetable. So I like to add their petals to savory custards to fill tartlets and quiches. The whole flowers can also be blanched quickly, and then toasted in a little oil or butter before being stirred into risotto.

Above: Lanky dandelion stems are a crisp, pretty raw vegetable.
Above: Dandelion stems after an ice bath, dressed with olive oil, lemon, and garlic.

Hidden in plain sight, the irresistibly crisp stems of dandelions are a still-untapped culinary marvel (stand aside, puntarelle). I have never seen them on a menu (have you?). Soaked in cold water for an hour they will arch photogenically and become even more succulent. Like their strongly flavored leaves, they are best served with other assertive flavors, like anchovy, lemon, and garlic; or ginger, soy, and sesame.

Above: A late spring plate of wild greens, foraged in Chamonix.

Sometimes, it’s the novelty of a different landscape that rekindles an old love. I fell in love again with dandelion leaves on a trip to the Alps, where every wild, daisy-studded lawn and every mountain slope seemed to vibrate with edible greens, scattered among native wildflowers. The proximity, via ordinary supermarkets and farm stands, of cheap but outstanding ingredients didn’t hurt. My taste for austere but powerful dandelion salads was reawakened.

Above: Dandelion leaves dressed with warm sherry vinegar in which artichoke stems have been caramelized.
Above: Overnight dandelion wine is three cups of flowers soaked in one bottle of good white wine.

And I skipped the fermentation-portion of dandelion wine. A 12-hour infusion of white wine and flowers yielded a quaffable aperitif that tasted like the mountains.

Above: “Simple, interesting, and good.”

At our rental cottage, a microplane and a nugget of nutty Gruyère transformed a plateful of dandelion leaves, with a slick of walnut oil. I added blanched bracken fern fiddleheads and the flowers of wintercress.

Later, back home in Brooklyn, homesick for affordable excellence and an everyday care for food that now seemed lacking, I found this recipe in Elizabeth David’s comforting French Provincial Cooking. 

Salade Verte À L’Angevine

Green Salad With Gruyère Cheese

“This salad was chosen by Curnonsky one year when several of the contributors of Cuisine et Vins de France, the magazine which he founded, chose their ideal Christmas Eve menu…

The salad consists simply of a few leaves of green stuff (lettuce or curly endive or dandelion) and little cubes of Gruyère cheese, the salad seasoned with savory and dressed with olive oil and no more than a suspicion of vinegar.

It is simple, interesting and good.”

Above: Olive oil, dandelion crowns, and salt.
Above: Dandelion cicchetti. Humble bar snacks. Or lunch.

Or make those vegan cicchetti: One dandelion crown per slice of baguette.

Wash your dandelion crowns very well. An overnight soak helps perk them up. Dry them and wilt them in a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. They are ready when the greens have begun to crisp and the succulent base is barely cooked-through. Season with salt and a flurry of field garlic, chives, or ramp leaves. Drape them over your bread, and pour the warm oil over the top. Garnish with extra flowers, if you have them. Eat at once.

Happy spring.

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