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It has been said that a weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place. By the same token, plants that some regard as weeds are esteemed by others. One example is the common dandelion. While in this country it is considered a scourge of gardeners, in France, you will find dandelion greens served at the finest restaurants.
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Dandelions seem to follow humans wherever they go, despite concerted efforts to eradicate them. Here in Juneau as the days lengthen and the snow disappears, dandelions are one of the first plants to spring to life. Right now, if you walk outside your door, you won't have to go far to find the saw-toothed leaves and tender buds of young dandelion plants emerging from their winter dormancy.
In Europe, dandelions are valued both as an early spring green and a health tonic. The greens are eaten in salads, either alone or with other garden greens. Some people also eat the young flower buds lightly steamed or sautéed with garlic in a little olive oil. Both the leaves and roots can be used to make a tea.
The dandelion has a venerable history as a medicinal plant. It is considered the preeminent herb for the liver and gallbladder, and has been widely used in Europe for more than a thousand years to treat jaundice and other liver complaints. The dandelion has a long history of medicinal use in India, China and Nepal as well. Nutritionally, it is an excellent source of Vitamins A and C as well as calcium and potassium.
The dandelion is a bitter herb, so the flavor takes some getting used to. I like them mixed with lettuce or other less bitter greens in a salad. The bitterness of dandelion has a positive side though, because the components of the plant that make it bitter also give it its medicinal value.
In recent years, farmers have started growing dandelions instead of trying to eradicate them, and now you can find dandelion greens in the produce aisles of stores. The cultivars tend to be milder and more tender than wild dandelions. Of course, I have heard more than one person chuckle at the sight of dandelion greens for sale when they have a bumper crop at home in their yard that they've been trying to get rid of.
To harvest wild dandelion greens, gather leaves from young plants that haven't flowered yet because they will be less bitter. Never gather dandelions from locations that have been treated with herbicides or other toxic lawn chemicals.
Here is a recipe for a spring salad featuring dandelion greens:
Dandelion salad with mustard vinaigrette
6 handfuls young dandelion greens, washed
1 or 2 garlic cloves, peeled
1½ tablespoons Dijon mustard
1½ tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
Pound the garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt in a mortar. In a small bowl, combine garlic, mustard, lemon juice, red wine vinegar and a generous pince of salt. Whisk in the olive oil and taste the dressing with a dandelion leaf. The flavor of the vinaigrette must be assertive enough to balance the bitterness of the dandelion. You may want to add more mustard or acid if the dandelion is particularly bitter.
Just before serving, put the dandelion greens in a large bowl, season with salt and freshly milled pepper, and gently toss with just enough vinaigrette to coat the greens lightly. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings. Recipe from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook by Alice Waters.
David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.