Posts Tagged ‘dandelion’

Dandelion Time

Just after the first nettles, the first dandelions are ready to eat. This happens about the same time that the earliest daffodils bloom.

I have mentioned in another post that dandelions don’t seem to occur naturally in my neighborhood, and I went to a ridiculous amount of trouble to have them and paid good money for seeds that people in other climates would pay to get rid of.  Surprisingly, they take a long time to establish. I find that they are extremely straggly and thin the first year, and only a little more substantial in the second year. But in the third year, they make beautiful thick rosettes of spring time leaves that are perfect for salads.  Interestingly, the dandelions growing in my garden beds are not bitter, although in general dandelion leaves are famous for bitterness.  This may have something to do with my alkaline and highly mineralized soil. I’m really not sure. But it is a nice bonus. If yours are bitter, check out Dr. Kallas’s excellent book Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate, which contains a number of sensible suggestions about making bitter greens more appealing.

All sorts of medicinal properties are attributed to dandelions,  and if you’re interested in that you can read up on it. Personally, as I have said several times before, I think that all leafy greens are medicinal in that they are really, truly good for you. Eat them all, lots of them.

The early spring leaves are both tender and substantial in texture. I like them in a salad either by themselves or with a little bit of outer leaves of romaine lettuce added.  But if you want to add them to a more traditional mixed salad, they add a nice amount of “lift“ to the mixture at this stage.  At times when I lived where dandelions or more bitter,  I was very fond of adding crumbled bacon and hard cooked or Friday eggs to dandelion salads. With the nonbitter leaves that grow here, I prefer to eat them just with a good vinaigrette, and maybe a few bones’ worth of roasted marrow alongside to complete the meal. I roast the bones with salt and seasoning, then dig the marrow out and plop it on a pile of dandelion leaves dressed with good vinaigrette. Grind some pepper over the top, and yum.  It’s a delicious way to stay ketogenic, but if you are not a low-carbohydrate eater, you can enjoy the marrow spread on elegant little pieces of sourdough toast.

Incidentally, if you are a fan of bone marrow, you might want to keep marrow spoons around, as shown above. They have long, narrow bowls that are specially designed for digging this delicious substance out of the bone. You can get heirloom sterling silver ones from England for $700 or more apiece, or you can do what I did and buy stainless steel marrow spoons on Amazon for less than $10 each. They work just fine.

A Wild Tangle

Back when I first became interested in the Cretan diet, somewhere I read a saying that I cannot remember accurately but that went something like this: “better my own greens and olives than foreign  sugar doled out to me by others.”  From a health standpoint, certainly, better any greens than any sugar, no matter where it came from.  So after the broccoli under frost blankets in my garden beds finally gave in, having produced most of the winter, I pulled out the broccoli plants for the goat and chickens  and left all the weedy little seedlings under the blankets to grow into salad greens.  In addition to real weeds like wild lettuce and arugula and sow thistle, which sow themselves all over the place at my house,  there are some greens like chickweed which are very weedy in other parts of the country, but which I actually had to start from purchased seed because they don’t grow around here.  Another treat that I am really enjoying in salads right now is celery micro greens, of which I have a large cluster simply because I forgot to cut down one of last year‘s celery plants before it went to seed. Now, tender 4 inch high celery has formed a dense patch over a foot in diameter, and it is very delicious in salad. With a wide enough assortment of wild and semiwild greens and herbs, a simple vinaigrette is all you need to have a great salad or side dish. Add some meat, eggs, or cheese and you have a meal.

I did make sure to have one established dandelion plant under frost blankets, but it is not doing any better than the ones in the open. Dandelions absolutely resist being civilized, and they do not adapt to us. They just keep doing their own gloriously wild thing.  Dandelions also resist selective breeding. I have bought expensive packets of seed that purported to produce larger, thicker-leaved, more delicious dandelions, and they are exactly like all the other dandelions around. This year, in some fit of madness, I spent €24 ordering two packets of highly specialized dandelion seed from France, despite the fact that I know perfectly well they will come out exactly like the common yard dandelion.

Early spring is the perfect time to learn to do a little foraging, if that is not already one of your hobbies. I would suggest starting out with the wonderful book from John Kallas, Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food From Dirt to Plate.  Most of the plants that Dr. Kallas describes will be found in your area, because they are common and  ubiquitous, and he will  teach you to identify like an expert and then get you doing delicious things with them.

Just recently, over maybe the last six months, I have noticed that any post I write that is tagged as having anything to do with wild lettuce gets an astounding amount of attention.  I wish that somebody could explain this to me. Because I have been foraging and eating this plant for a good 20 years, and  despite some strange Internet rumors I feel that I can definitively say as follows: it will not relieve pain. It will not cure insomnia. It will not get you high. I wish I understood where these ideas came from, because they certainly did not come from anybody with a knowledge of foraging wild plants.  Really, if your goal is to get high, please leave the wild lettuce for those of us who just like to eat greens.

Fall Summation IV part 2: Further Perennials

In my last post, I started to sum up a few perennial edibles around my yard, and found that there are actually a lot more of them then I realized. So here’s part two.

Bladder campion, Silene vulgaris, is always my first green of spring and my last green of fall. It is better cooked than raw in my opinion, but some leaves in a mixed salad will certainly not hurt anything and have a pleasant substantial texture. I had to buy seed of this one to get it started, and it was a couple of years before it really begin to grow well, but now I have enough to need to weed out some. It has never been a problem weed or gotten out of control under my conditions. It seeds itself around a bit, but not unreasonably.

Curled dock is a common weed that most people could not imagine planting on purpose, but in my area it grows mostly along the irrigation ditches, which are also frequented by dogs. So to have a good clean supply, I do grow some in my weed patch. The slightly lemony greens are very good in mixed greens but rapidly get bitter as the weather warms. Get them early. And then get them again late, because like so many perennials, they produce a smaller but useful second crop of leaves in late fall.  This one does seed it self around like crazy, and every single seed seems to be viable, so do be careful to cut off the flower stalks early unless you want a lot more plants. There is a great deal written about the culinary uses of the seeds. I don’t care for them at all, but you can read about this elsewhere if you are interested.  Some people also use the roots medicinally, and that also could be researched elsewhere.

Bronze fennel is a lovely ornamental as well as a delicious seasoning herb and vegetable. I find the flavor a little more pronounced and anisey than that of green fennel. It’s also prettier. In Samuel Thayer‘s newest book, Incredible Wild Edibles, there is a wonderful chapter on how to use fennel.  My very favorite part is the young shoot, and so far I have not been able to induce my plants to make tender shoots in the fall, but I’m still trying. The leaves are a wonderful seasoning for fish and seafood, and are great chopped and sprinkled lavishly over salads.

Burdock has not been a success for me so far, due to personal taste preferences. Even the youngest spring leaves taste rank and have a rough texture, the root is bland and turns an unpleasant color even when cooked with some lemon juice, and the peeled flower stalk is no more than passable to my palate. I think that the peeled stalk chunks might be tastier when cooked with stronger seasonings or perhaps grilled, and I’ll try that next year. It often happens that an edible perennial hangs around my place for years before I learn to use it in ways that I really like, so I think of burdock as a potential vegetable that I haven’t really learned about yet. I am happy enough to give it some space because my goat is crazy about the leaves and leaf stalks, but be aware that even if you think you are cutting down all the flower stalks, it ingeniously forms some tiny short ones that get past you and scatter seeds everywhere. Bees enjoy the flowers and birds enjoy the seeds, but the price of having it around is eternal vigilance and a fair amount of grunt weeding.

Dandelion is not a common weed in my area, believe it or not, and I had to buy seeds to get it started.  But I wanted it and was happy to persevere until I got some to germinate. The young leaves of dandelion have a fair amount of bitterness and might be an acquired taste, and most people start out by disliking them, then later in their foraging career begin to like them, and ultimately crave them.  I’m at the craving stage. I also enjoy using the flowers, although the bitter green sepals have to be pulled off, which is a bit tedious.  I think that the petals might be useful in fritters and similar preparations, but I haven’t done that yet.  There is always more to learn. I do like the young, tightly closed buds when I can get enough of them to bother cooking. I am not a fan of the root, and this is another plant where I leave the root in place to produce the parts that I like better.  Here in the  high desert I like to grow mine in partial shade because the leaves get more tender, less bitter, and quite a bit bigger. Incidentally, I bought some seeds called French Thick Leaf that were supposed to be very superior, and used some seeds from a northeastern person’s yard, and the plants are all pretty much identical.

Common milkweed is another weed that just does not grow in my area, although I often see it when vacationing further north in Colorado. It took me a few tries to start it from seed, and it needs winter stratification. So far I have only had a few bites each of spring shoots and buds, plus one young pod, on my plate because it’s still getting established. But it has the mild “foody” flavor that I remember, especially good with butter. The vanilla-scented flowers are wildly attractive to bees, and of course this is the food plant of the monarch butterfly. Once established, it doesn’t need too much water, but it needs a fair amount to get started. Be sure that you know how to identify it as Asclepius syraica because there are some thin-leaved toxic milkweeds, and if you are foraging it in the wild I strongly suggest reading Samuel Thayer on how to tell the young shoots from dogsbane,  which resemble them in ways but are very bitter. I hope to have a lot of it around in the future.

Pokeweed was one of my favorite wild foods when I was first getting interested in foraging. It’s a big rank plant, up to six feet high and as much across, and has to be sited accordingly. It also REQUIRES preboiling in a large volume of water, which is then thrown out, before further preparation for eating. It is toxic if not prepared properly. Please consult Samuel Thayer’s Incredible Wild Edibles before trying to eat it. Then you’ll have all the information you need to eat it safely. It doesn’t grow in the Southwest, but I finally got two plants started from seed, and hope to have more in the future. Euell Gibbons wrote about forcing pokeweed shoots in winter, and one day I may try some version of that.

Goji Shoots come up everywhere after you’ve grown goji berries for a few years. They are very tasty sautéed in butter or olive oil. To enjoy them, you have to get new shoots as shown. They should be green all over and tender enough to snap when bent. If they have anything resembling brown bark, or have to be cut, skip them. I cut my plants back in late winter and harvest some shoots in spring, and this year I cut some plants back in late fall and put frost blankets over them to see if I can get some winter shoots. I’ll report back.

Hosta shoots are a new vegetable for me, because when I moved to my current home it was a flat lot covered with tumbleweed and baked into adobe by the blazing sun. It’s only now, eight years later, that my trees are big enough to provide shade for the shade-loving hostas. I chose the biggest ones that I could find because the shoots are bigger. I have only eaten them once because my plants are young and I don’t want to weaken them. They were mild and good steamed and eaten with a soy-ginger sauce. There is nothing especially distinctive about the flavor but nothing objectionable either, and the texture is tender as long as you get them before they unfurl. They would probably be a good addition to salads if sliced, although I haven’t tried that yet. It takes a couple of years before they’re established enough to harvest, which is usual with perennials. Once established, they could be harvested for a couple of weeks in spring, then allowed to form ornamental foliage. When the leaves get ratty in late summer they could be cut back, then a few shoots harvested again as they refurbish themselves. Of note, this is an edible perennial that would pass muster with the strictest homeowners’ association so you can grow it whatever your circumstances.

Baked Feta

I love the texture that feta acquires when baked, firm and compact and steak-like and very different from its crumbly fresh incarnation,  and I love to season it with assortments of garden and wild greens gathered as the inspiration strikes.

For this infinitely adaptable recipe, you will need a quarter cup of drained capers, two cloves of garlic, a quart loosely packed of very flavorful chopped greens and herbs, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, and a block of feta sized according to your appetite. This dish can be anything from a meze to a full meal, depending on the size of the feta block. Just be sure that it’s high quality; this is a good time to check out your local Middle Eastern import store. Cut two “steaks” of the desired size, being careful not to crumble them.

Have ready olive oil, two cloves of garlic chopped, and a handful (maybe 1/4 cup) of capers, rinsed of brine and squeezed dry. An optional but very pretty addition is some red pepper, roasted, peeled, and chopped, or some red chiles roasted, peeled, and sliced.

Next, choose your greens. I decided that I wanted the flavor to be bright, tart, and lemony as well as herbal, so I started with 15 good-sized wine grape leaves. If you are going to use fresh grape leaves, please read my post on choosing grape leaves first, because some are unchewable and will ruin your meal.

I added dandelion leaves, the new ones that have grown after the plant bloomed, which are tender and only slightly bitter. I used about a dozen, cutting the stringy ends off as shown.

Then a double handful of mulberry shoots, using only the ones that are new, bright grass-green, and snap off easily with very little use of force.

Finally, some fennel shoots, the top of the bloomscape as shown, before the flowers emerge and open. The stalks are tender, nonwoody, and wonderfully anise flavored at this stage. Once the flowers emerge, the stems become woody.

Wash all your greens and sliver them in fine cross-section. make sure the fennel shoots are cut in fine slices less than a quarter inch thick. Preheat the oven to 350. You will start cooking on the stove, but if you use a Spanish cazuela it can go right into the oven for the second step. Heat the dish and sauté the garlic in olive oil until just cooked but not at all colored. Put in all the greens and the capers and cook, stirring frequently, until the greens are cooked and soft. Taste for salt, but salt it on the light side, since you are going to add feta.

When they just begin to fry in the oil, remove from heat and scatter the red peppers or red chiles around the edges, then put the feta “steaks” in the middle and drizzle olive oil over all.

Bake at least 15 minutes or until the herbs and peppers look all cooked together, probably about 15 minutes. The cheese might color slightly at the edges but won’t brown. If you like it to brown, run under a hot broiler for a minute, taking care not to let the greens burn. Serve with sourdough bread if you can have it, or with a salad alongside.

I am sometimes the target (quite fairly, I might add) of complaints about imprecision. “A double handful,” the precisionists cry, what on earth is that? I reply that it’s the amount you have, and if you don’t have any, you probably have something just as good. I cut my eyeteeth on Elizabeth David recipes with her terse, one-cook-to-another directions, and I hate the mindless insistence of “precisely 1/8 teaspoon” sort of directions.  “But drizzle with olive oil, how much do you mean?” Somewhere I read the story of a new wife being taught a recipe by her Greek mother-in-law, whose directions included “Then close your eyes and pour in olive oil.” That’s how much I mean.

Dandelions Nose to Tail

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I seldom write about foraging and cooking with dandelions, because although I love them, they are the most written-about wild food and I think it’s all been said before. But yesterday I came across a patch of dandelions growing in a shady spot in moist streamside soil, and last night I challenged myself to make a dandelion dinner with dishes that I had never made before. So no recipes this time, just briefs about how a very impromptu meal came together. I had gathered flowers on the very long stems that form in shady conditions, unopened buds, and leaves.
I hard-boiled some eggs, and made a cup of sauce from 3/4 cup of soy sauce, 1/4 cup of rice vinegar, 2 cloves of garlic chopped, and a tablespoon of grated ginger, plus some sweetener. If you use sugar, to tablespoons might be about right, or just sweeten to taste. When the eggs were cooked and peeled, I set them in the dipping sauce to marinate, using a small plate to keep them completely submerged.
I prepared about two cups (loosely packed) of dandelion flowers pulled out of their bitter green calyxes. This is a tedious job and you might as well sit down for it, but I had my two cups in about 25 minutes. A few calyx tips will stay with the flowers and they don’t matter as long as none of the intensely bitter base is included. I incorporated the flowers into my favorite low-carb drop biscuit dough (use your own favorite recipe) and put them in to bake.
The unopened buds were blanched in boiling water for a minute, drained and squeezed, and put in to marinate in the soy sauce mixture with the eggs.
The stems were 8-10 inches long and barely bitter at all, thanks to the shade and wet soil. I put the stems and some leaf midribs in boiling water to blanch for one minute and drained them. In a skillet I heated coconut fat and fried a handful of 1″ pieces of green onion leaves briefly, then added the blanched stems and a couple of tablespoons of the egg dipping sauce, stir-fried over high heat until the sauce was nearly evaporated, and plated the stems with sliced marinated eggs on top and the marinated buds sprinkled over. I drizzled a bit more dipping sauce over the eggs, which spoils the neat appearance but improves the flavor. I put a Dandy Drop Biscuit on each side, and we ate.

If you question the inclusion of drop biscuits in this essentially Asian meal, well, fair enough. Sometimes my menu planning is based more on ideas I am eager to try then on careful coordination of dishes. Do not underestimate the local household joy produced by a cook who is enthusiastically trying stuff.
Take-home lessons: the stems are really fragile and can get mushy easily, and next time I will cut them in 3-4″ lengths and stir-fry them without the initial blanching. They need a lighter hand than I realized. Also, I was reminded anew how much I like the unopened buds. If I ever harvested enough of them at once, I would stir-fry some with chopped garlic and pickle some like capers.
The alert reader may note that the leaves and roots weren’t mentioned. The leaves are waiting in the refrigerator to be  cooked up tonight. I don’t care for dandelion roots, personally, but if you do, there is scads of information about using them in any wild food book or herbal. I think the highest use for the roots is to leave them in place to produce more leaves, stems, and blossoms.

Books Worth Reading: John Kallas on Edible Wild Plants


The holiday weekend was a great time to read in a warm spot, which reminded me that I should be sharing more of the books that I think are really helpful. I should add that I don’t accept free review copies; whenever I review a book, I paid the same price for it that you will. I think that this is essential to an accurate judgment of the value-for-money aspect of the books that I recommend.
With that in mind, John Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate is a very good value if you want to get started in foraging. I get a lot of inquiries about wild foods, and this is a book that I can recommend without reservation to any beginner; if you read and pay attention, you will learn to collect a number of common plants safely and prepare them well. Kallas concentrates on leafy greens which are found in most parts of the country, and he organizes them by flavor category in addition to giving accurate botanical and ID information. This is a lot more useful and practical than you might realize if you aren’t accustomed to foraging for greens. A well-balanced dish of greens needs a range of flavor notes, as well as a base of mild greens to build upon, and as you learn the plants from Kallas you will learn the notable aspects of their flavors. In my opinion, nearly any experienced forager could pick up a tip or two here, about preparation if not about identification.
Only greens and shoots are found in this book. If this seems too limited, keep in mind that most of us aren’t going to spend the time needed to forage and prepare wild staples, at least not most of the time. It’s romantic to read about gathering wild rice or arrowroot, or to imagine spending a clear autumn day gathering and storing fruit or nuts, but the wild foods that are widely available throughout much of the country for much of the year and that you can forage in a few minutes on your way home from work are mostly greens and shoots. Besides, if most of us were to make one change in our diets and maintain it, the addition of more green veggies would be a good one to pick. If foraging gets you to eat more leafy greens, this is a good thing.
If, like me, you’re a Kindle addict, this book is available on Kindle. I use the Kindle app on my Ipad so that I can see the photos in color. I daydream about eventually having a large collection of good foraging books on one e-device that I can carry around in my backpack, but unfortunately most of the wild-foods books available for Kindle are not of high quality. This one is.
DR. Kallas’s website can be found here if you’d like to order the book directly from him. You can also read his reviews of foraging books, and his thoughtful comments are invaluable when deciding what books you want to add to your collection.

Planning Your Garden: the Weed Patch, and more on the Peruvian Purple Potato

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know about my interest in useful weeds, ie plants which thrive on neglect, spread rapidly, and are often overlooked, but offer good eating. Now that I’m planning a brand-new garden from scratch, I’m planning a “weed patch” as part of it. This will be out of the path of garden traffic so that I can have milk thistles and nettles, and screened from the rest of the property with a row of sunflowers so that nobody but me has to look at it much, and there all my favorite edible thugs can slug it out together. If you have room for a weed corner, you might consider some of these:

1. Stinging nettle. The nettle offers some of the best early-spring greens to be found. You can start them from seed (try Johnny’s Selected Seeds) or from plants (Richter’s is the only source that I know of.) They spread like wildfire, so underground barriers or a spot that you can mow all the way around are essential. See my post for harvesting and cooking details, and treat this plant with great respect, because the sting is pretty painful.
2. Curly Mallow. I like the leaves as part of a mix of greens, and it thrives on heat and doesn’t need too much water. I got the seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery years ago, and it’s been happily self-seeding ever since.
3. Milk thistle. THis will be a new one for me, but I’m told that the young shoots make good cooked greens when the prickles are trimmed off, so I’ll give it a try.
4. Sorrel. This might not seem like a weed, but it’s a healthy, vigorous, weedy-looking plant, so it can stay in the weed patch, out of the way. You can get seed almost anywhere, even from seed racks. It’s best to let it grow the first year, just removing flower stalks as they appear, and then start harvesting in early spring the second year.
5. Curled dock. This comon roadside weed is sour and bitter at most stages of development, but in the late fall and very early spring it’s one of the best greens around. Like its relative sorrel, it turns brownish-green when cooked, so I use it in mixtures of cooked greens rather than by itself. I don’t know of any source for the seeds. I picked mine by the roadside years ago, and this robust perennial has been with me ever since.
6. Dandelions. Like dock, they are actively distasteful most of the year, but in very early spring they offer delicious lightly bitter leaves which give a wild tang to a mixed salad or a little zip to a cooked greens mixture.

An alert reader let me know recently that the source I gave for the Peruvian Purple Potato no longer offers them. I save my own starter potatoes from year to year, but you can get the Peruvian from Ronnigers. They also have a splendid assortment of garlics, and some other plants of interest.