Posts Tagged ‘dandelion’

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.

The Greens of Spring: Scorzonera and Chicories

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If all the greens you grow are sweet mild greens, your greens dishes will be bland. You need some vigor and some bitterness to make a hortapita or other mixed greens dish come alive. Chicories are a large, drought-tolerant, highly adaptable family well worth getting to know. Our local company Gourmet Seeds in Tatum, New Mexico has the most comprehensive selection I’ve come across. I bought my seed from them last year, and haven’t had to replant. Above, you can see what radicchio looks like in early life. I plant mine in late summer, harvest a small but usable head in late fall, ands take care not to harm the crown of the plant when I cut it for use. If the root and crown are left in place, next April they will look like “earth roses” as you see above. Cut the outer leaves for cooking. Taste before use, and if they’re very bitter blanch them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes and drain well before cooking further in whatever way you choose. Otherwise, when concentrated by cooking, they will be more bitter than you want. Some people like even the outer leaves in salads. Taste before serving. See my “greens” and “recipe” categories for some dishes made with mixed blanched greens, including the hortapita post, which is a great way to eat a lot of greens and enjoy it.
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This is the chicory usually sold as “dandelion” in grocery stores. Cut the leaves until May or June; keep taking nibbles raw befre cutting, and when they go from pleasantly bitter to unpleasantly bitter, stop cutting or blanch before use. When very young, they’re good in salads. If allowed to go to seed, they’ll get 4 feet tall and seed themselves all over your garden. If this is not what you want, keep cutting back the stalks before they flower.
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I planted scorzonera for the roots, but found that I wasn’t wowed by them. I left the remaining plants in place, and harvest a nice bunch of mild cooking greens from each plant every spring. After one good cutting, I leave them alone for the year. I’ve read that they can be used in salads, but to my tooth they’re  too tough to use uncooked. They require no care and are very drought-tolerant. I prefer to mix them with stronger-flavored greens like chicories, and providentially, they’re harvestable at the same time. Vegetables that come up perennially with no fuss are too good to ignore.
For more about greens, see my “greens” and “herbs” pages on my website.