My basic theory of gardening is that plants want to grow. And if they want to grow — if they spring up on their own and we can eat them, don’t interfere. That means dandelions in the yard and vegetable garden (they grow strongest in the sun). Wild onions have shot up everywhere too.
I’m very much against poisoning them. Pulling up “weeds” is the most effective way of dealing with them (despite what you’ll read on the internet about vinegar solutions). Dandelions aren’t “weeds” to me. Picking and eating dandelions in the early spring is an ancient ritual. They are filled with minerals and vitamins, and are good for the liver.
Dandelion leaves can be bitter. The are less bitter when small and the flowers haven’t bloomed. Large leaves from blooming dandelions can be cooked to mellow their flavor and make them tender.
Dandelions don’t have poisonous lookalikes, according to Wildman Steve Brill, an expert forager who leads tours in New York and Connecticut. Chicory looks like dandelion and is edible, so if you’re foraging, you’ll probably pick up both.
To counter the bitterness of a wild dandelion and chicory salad, I give it a hearty dressing, an emulsion of olive oil, lemon juice, mashed garlic, and salt. Then add chunks of rich, creamy avocado and slices of crisp, sweet red bell pepper.
You can also subdue a dandelion with a dressings of hot bacon fat, apple cider vinegar, then top with lardons and garlic-rubbed croutons. Avocado works in this salad too.
To cook, first gather as many as you can. A big bowl of leaves will reduce when cooked. Wash them — you’ll probably have to soak them in water twice. (I use it to water the seedlings on the back porch.)
Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil. Add the greens. When the water returns to a boil, let them cook for a minute. This step removes the bitterness. Remove from water and place in a bowl of cold water.
In a large frying pan, simmer garlic or wild garlic cloves in olive oil until it smells good, but doesn’t brown. Add blanched dandelion greens. Saute them in the oil, add fresh water, salt, and more olive oil, and bring to simmer. Partially cover and cook for ten minutes or so until the leaves do not resist to the bite. Serve in a bowl with some of the water, drizzle on more olive oil to taste. The water the greens simmer in tastes delicious. I’m certain it’s good for you.
Another classic Italian recipe, which Lidia Bastianich told me about, pairs cooked dandelions on top of pureed fava beans. It’s made with dried favas, which are actually less time consuming to work with than fresh. It’s a dish from Puglia, and the pleasing contrast of sharp greens and rich beans, is eaten in alternating bites, with good country bread.
Giuliano Bugialli has a recipe for dandelions with favas in his book Foods of Italy. My photojournalist friends will note that John Dominis shot the gorgeous photos. He gave a copy to my mother and inscribed it. I learned to cook from Foods of Italy, and I return to the recipes.
That reminds me of another one of my favorite dishes, which I call Beans Over Greens. Cooked dried beans (white beans or chickpeas), sautéed in garlic, scallions and parsley (which is also flourishing in my garden right now.) I usually serve this over arugula. It could also be served with a super-early green like mache or ackersalat.
But ackersalat seeds must be planted the previous fall. Meanwhile, the arugula seedlings have sprouted, and the leaves will be ready to eat in a few weeks.
In the meantime, I’ll eat dandelions.