Dandelions--if you can't beat 'em...eat 'em!

When the first robin appears and the trees begin to bud, everyone knows that spring has arrived. Another sure sign of spring that is not welcomed by most people is the appearance of the hardy dandelion.

Author Dr. Peter A. Gail admits that when most people consider celebrating dandelions, they do so in much the same spirit as one celebrates overstayed house guests--the party begins once they're gone! However, it is also true that while most Americans think of this harbinger of spring as "lawn enemy number one," this abundant wild vegetable is welcomed and celebrated around the world as a delicious and nutritious food which also has medicinal value.

Did you know that dandelions are more nutritious than broccoli and spinach? Did you now that James Beard featured blanched dandelion crowns au gratin on the menu of the First Conference on Gastronomy? Did you know that many of the best seed houses in the U.S. sell dandelion seeds and that thousands of people plant dandelions in their garden each year?

If you are motivated to try dandelions for yourself, here is what you must do to insure a good first experience:

1. Collect dandelion leaves in the spring before the flower buds appear. After that, they are too bitter to eat, unless you follow the directions below. Make sure that you collect them significantly back from the road and in areas which have not been sprayed with herbicide or pesticide. Studies on heavy metal pollution conducted at Rutgers and Cornell Universities and by the National Research Council indicated that soil and plant lead concentrations, which generally are in the range of 15 to 25 parts per million parts of plant tissue (ppm), rose to 300 to 500 ppm near the edge of a heavily-traveled road. At 75 feet back from the road, or behind a building which blocked the pollutants, lead levels were those normally expected. In 1984, Kuleff, a radiochemist at the University of Sofia, (Sofia, Bulgaria) found that dandelion leaves accumulated heavy metals in an amount directly proportional to the presence of those metals in the environment, making dandelion leaves very effective monitors of air pollution (Hobbs, 1985). So be careful and collect only where the air and soil are relatively dean!
2. If buds or flowers have already appeared on your dandelions by the time you read this, there still is hope. Wait until flowering is complete. Cut the old greens and flowers off at the root and let new greens grow. Harvest the new greens while young and tender and they will be only slightly more bitter than in early spring. The best greens will be those which are allowed . to grow in the rich soils of your vegetable garden. Ours grow on the perimeters of our raised beds and are delicious. We harvest our dandelions well into October each year and find them less bitter than store bought greens.
3. To reduce bitterness even further, cover dandelions as they are growing with a pot, slate, or some other device to blanch the greens. This reduces their nutritional properties, however.
4. The best way to harvest is to cut the greens with the top of the root still attached so that the leaves stay together. This makes them easier to clean. A stirrup hoe, available from garden centers, is excellent for this task, as well as for weeding your garden generally.
5. Wash the greens thoroughly to get all the sand out and peel off all old leaves.

If you would like your first experience to be with cooked greens, the basic method for cooking dandelion greens is as follows:

* Wash the greens thoroughly in slightly warm water removing old, discolored, or badly broken leaves. Cut off the roots and any tough stems, and wash again, lifting the greens out of the water to allow any sand to settle in the pan. Then sprinkle the greens with salt.
* Cook the greens, with just the water which was clinging to the leaves after washing, in a tightly covered heavy pot or steamer until they are limp and barely tender, which takes between five and 10 minutes.
* Drain them and chop them fine.
* Dress the cooked greens with your choice of olive oil, butter or margarine, vinegar or lemon juice, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste.

The foods which complement and best reduce the apparent bitterness of dandelion greens are garlic, pork and pork fat in some form, eggs, vinegar, cheese and bread. Combining one or more of these ingredients with raw cooked dandelions is the best way to enhance your enjoyment of them. Some variations we have tried include:

* adding vinegar and brown sugar (or maple syrup) to hot bacon fat to make a sweet and sour dressing, and pouring it over either raw or steamed dandelions just before serving;
* serving dandelions with cheese and bread, both which mask bitterness. I recently put a slab of blue cheese on a hamburger bun, loaded it up with raw dandelion leaves, and could detect no bitterness at all. Of course, you have to like blue cheese!

If you prefer raw greens:

* Break the tender young leaves into a salad bowl.
* Add bacon bits (real or artificial), hard-boiled egg, your favorite cheese, tomato, some garlic and/or onion.
* Dress the salad either with vinegar and oil or with: sweet and sour dressing.

This salad may be eaten alone or with bread--especially a piece of hard-crusted Italian bread. With sweet and sour dressing, we find the flavor reminiscent of a spinach salad with grapefruit sections added.

Seasonings used to flavor dandelions vary depending on who is doing the cooking. The French, Northern Italians, New Englanders, and Southerners cook their greens with a chunk of salt pork, bacon, or ham added. Greeks and Southern Italians dress the greens with olive oil, lemon, or vinegar, and garlic and/or various spices, including hot peppers. Chris Hobbs says that horta, a stir-fry of chicory or dandelion greens, olive oil, thyme, sage, and other spices that he had while in Greece, was the best tasting dish he has ever had. Northern Italians, Germans, Swiss, and Austrians dress their dandelions with bacon and vinegar and top them with hard-boiled eggs. Southerners season their greens with vinegar and pepper. Other seasonings include sauteed onions, beets, chili sauce, and horseradish. The best suggestion is simply to experiment. Some say that after you have acquired a taste for the bitterness of the greens, you'll find there is nothing better than plain old buttered dandelion greens seasoned with salt and pepper.

Another simple test is to make a Dandelion Pizza Sandwich out of bread, shrimp sauce, chopped raw dandelions and cheese. I prefer pita bread or bagels and colby or cheddar cheese for this sandwich. Toast the bread. Spread shrimp sauce (ketchup with horseradish), pizza sauce, or barbecue sauce over the surface. Add chopped dandelions, top with thin slices of cheese, and microwave or broil just until the cheese melts. Then eat and enjoy. Cooked, well-drained dandelion greens could be used instead of raw. I fed this sandwich to the carpet layers and painters who were working on my house, and they raved about it. For a more elaborate dandelion pizza, try the Dandelion Pizza recipe.

This was your test. If the experience was a good one, dandelions are for you. If not, and you followed the rules, they still may be for you, but you have to add a couple of more steps to your processing to further mask the bitterness. As a last resort, you can look at it philosophically--anything that bitter must be good for you, right?

You may also try letting the greens stand overnight in cold water which considerably reduces bitterness. Cooking the greens in two changes of water with a bit of baking soda added to the first change is another way to reduce any bitter taste.

Casseroles with meat, beans and/or tomato, as well as dandelion quiches, mask the bitterness even more. Breads also mask (or, maybe, complement) bitterness. One of the best ways I have found to enjoy fresh dandelion salad is to eat it wrapped up in thin Greek or Middle Eastern bread, or loaded into the pocket of regular pita bread.
DANDELION PIZZA

prepared pizza dough
olive oil
4 cups finely chopped dandelions
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese
juice of 1/2 lemon
shredded mozzarella cheese

Prepare pizza dough using whatever recipe you prefer and let rise. When ready to bake, place in 350 degree oven on a cookie sheet and bake until golden, but not brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and brush on olive oil with a pastry brush. Let cool slightly.

Steam dandelions and drain well. Brown garlic in olive oil and add greens to it. Mix in Parmesan cheese and lemon juice. Spread greens on top of the baked crust and top with shredded mozzarella cheese. Return to oven for about 10 minutes or until cheese melts. This recipe was contributed by Christine Juliano Casey of Mayfield Village, Ohio.

Reprinted with permission from THE DANDELION CELEBRATION: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine by Peter A. Gail, Ph.D. (C)1994, published by Goosefoot Acres Press, P.O. Box 18016, Cleveland, OH 44118, $10.95 pb.

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