Dandelions are an assertive green — just ask any gardener who's had to battle them on the lawn or in cracks on the driveway. Unwanted, any greens are "weeds."
But have you ever bitten into a dandelion leaf? The flavor is tangy, even borderline bitter, with a definite texture. It's an assertiveness that can work wonders in the kitchen, provided you know how to handle it and pair the greens with complementary flavors.
I served dandelion greens with bacon, a natural combination, for dinner one night recently. I rendered a few strips of chopped bacon, tossing in freshly chopped garlic — another natural dandelion pairing — just before the bacon crisped. In went a bunch of chopped dandelions, as I stirred to wilt them in hot bacon fat. I finished the dish with a drizzle of sherry vinegar and a touch of maple syrup, the vinegar cutting through the heaviness of the bacon and the syrup helping to tame the bitterness of the greens.
Later at the table, I looked over and saw both of our plates were clean. Success.
Pushing the envelope, I decided to try dandelions in pesto. Using a mortar and pestle (really the only way to make pesto; the grinding releases so much more flavor than the blades of a blender or food processor), I ground garlic with a little coarse salt, then added pine nuts, working the mixture to a paste. In place of traditional basil, I slowly added chopped dandelion greens, layering the flavors with grated cheese, fruity olive oil and a touch of lemon juice as the bright green pesto came together.
I tossed the pesto with linguine and placed it on the table. With each bite, the ground raw garlic and dandelion was balanced with buttery pine nuts and creamy cheese. A pesto with a bit more of a "bite," perhaps, but it worked well with pasta and could easily work as a dip for crostini or vegetables. The verdict? Another winner.
Finally, I decided to go all in with a dandelion salad. Because the greens would be more prominent in this dish, I used tender, new leaves for a gentler flavor. I tossed the leaves with sliced onion, toasted pecans and crumbled goat cheese, sweetening the salad with raisins and blood orange segments, and dressing the salad lightly with sherry vinegar and oil.
I could feel the quiet skepticism as I placed the salad on the table. One bite. Then another. Several slow, thoughtful bites before the silence was broken and the verdict came down:
"You know? I still think they're weeds, but dandelions aren't that bad."
Salad of dandelion greens, blood oranges, goat cheese and pecans
2 blood oranges
1 bunch (1-pound) dandelion greens, trimmed and torn
1 cup toasted pecan halves
½ red onion, thinly sliced
2⁄3 cup raisins
¼ cup sherry vinegar
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
Slice off the tops and bottoms of the oranges, then cut off the rest of the peel, carefully following the line of the flesh. Slice free each segment over a bowl to collect the juices, separating it from the central membrane. Set the segments and juice aside.
In a large bowl, toss dandelion greens with pecans, onion and raisins.
In the bowl with the orange juice, whisk in sherry vinegar and olive oil, along with ½ teaspoon salt and several grinds of pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.
Add half the dressing to the salad, tossing to coat. Add additional dressing to taste. Gently toss in orange segments.
Plate the salad, dotting the top with crumbled goat cheese. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 to 2 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon kosher salt, divided
3 tablespoons pine nuts
¾ bunch (12 ounces) dandelion greens, trimmed and chopped
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino Romano cheese
2 to 4 tablespoons fruity olive oil
Lemon juice, if desired, to taste
Using a mortar and pestle (see note), grind garlic and 1⁄8 teaspoon salt to smooth paste. Add pine nuts and grind until smooth. Add a handful of dandelion greens and a sprinkling of salt, grinding to break down leaves to a pulp, until all the greens and salt are incorporated (this can take up to 30 minutes). Add cheeses and olive oil, grinding and stirring to combine. Taste, adjusting cheese and seasoning if desired. Add a touch of lemon juice to brighten the flavors if you like. Makes about ½ cup.
Note: The pesto also can be made in a food processor or blender, though it will require an additional clove or more of garlic.
Wilted dandelion greens with bacon
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 slices applewood-smoked bacon, cut crosswise into ½ -inch strips
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 bunch (1-pound) dandelion greens, trimmed and torn into 3- to 4-inch strips
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1½ to 2 tablespoons maple syrup
In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until bacon is crisp and the fat is rendered. The last minute or so before the bacon is ready, stir in garlic. Add dandelion greens and remove from heat, stirring until greens are wilted. Season with salt and several grinds of pepper, and stir in vinegar and maple syrup. Taste and adjust the seasonings and flavorings if desired. Makes 2 to 4 servings.