Set the Table with Dandelion Greens
Written onFebruary 19 , 2014
I’ve spent years walking past any dandelion greens I see for sale, on the grounds that I will not pay for something that’s growing everywhere I look all spring and summer. Granted, I never stop to pick those free dandelion leaves, so inevitably, a vegetable that I won’t buy because it’s too common ends up not being at all common on my plate. It’s the Dandelion Paradox. This past winter, I wanted to unravel it.
I started my inquiries with Vermont gardening guru Charlie Nardozzi, the go-to guy for plant introductions.
“You can blame it on the Italians,” Charlie said of the issue of cultivated dandelion greens versus foraged ones. Dandelions have been a mainstay of Italian kitchen gardens for centuries, which explains why my memories of enjoying these greens all involve Italian restaurants, where I’ve found them on top of pizzas or tossed with pasta and olive oil. In fact, in the Johnny’s Seeds catalogs, the dandelion options all appear grouped under “Italian Dandelion.”
These are not the yellow-flowered Taraxacum officinale we see growing unbidden across lawns and fields. They’re a variety of chicory instead—albeit a variety that tastes like the wild dandelion for which they’re named. No matter what the origin, though, we’re dealing with a bitter green. And since I wasn’t going to be able to tell the difference in taste between the cultivated and wild varieties once I got them into my kitchen, I still wasn’t sold on shelling out for the cultivated variety.
So I called Colin McCaffrey of Hermit’s Gold Wild Edibles in East Montpelier to check on these flavor claims. Colin confirmed that the bitter dandelion flavor stays constant from wild to cultivated. However, he cautioned that even though the plants generally have the same flavor, the taste of a particular dandelion (or chicory) depends on its growing conditions.
It doesn’t take a lot to make a dandelion happy. Given decent soil, a modest amount of water, and little competition from other plants, dandelions will send up tender leaves for cutting throughout the spring, summer, and even early fall. But dandelions in the wild don’t get these advantages. Poor soil, drought, and other stressors can increase the bitterness of their greens. Also, if you haven’t been monitoring and consistently picking the leaves of wild dandelions at their youngest stage, they become tough. Collecting wild greens from along roadways or lawns treated with chemicals also introduces the danger of eating toxins that the plants have picked up from their environment. In practice, then, cultivated dandelions can have a much more appealing flavor.
“Dandelions are pretty easy to grow,” Charlie Nardozzi had told me, encouragingly. He’s recently made them a regular in his garden. “I planted a small patch [last year] and had more greens than I knew what to do with.”
Farmers find dandelion yields encouraging, too. Angus Baldwin of Three Crows Farm in Jeffersonville says, “It’s kind of like growing lettuce, but it keeps growing back…. Even in [one] terrible year I got five to six cuttings.” These resilient plants with multiple harvests are an attractive choice for his small farm, which offers less than an acre of growing space.
I was going from turning my nose up at cultivated dandelion greens to considering planting a patch in my own backyard.
Dandelion greens inhabit a peculiar double world of wild and cultivated foods. Trace any crop back far enough and you’ll find wild ancestors. Often the ancestors bear little resemblance to their modern incarnations—like the small, hard, sour fruits that eventually became our juicy tomatoes, or the tough teosinte grass seeds that became sweet corn. On the other side of the equation, we can find enjoyable wild plants that haven’t gone through domestication, such as the ramps and fiddleheads that eaters and sellers gather but almost never grow commercially. Dandelions are a crop that’s easy to grow commercially, but one that has a character substantially the same as the wild version. It’s like having your cake and eating it, too.
The downside of this equation is that the character of dandelion greens is unabashedly bitter—and bitter can be hard to sell. When Angus at Three Crows first added dandelion greens to his CSA, most people threw them out or gave them away. He’s trying again this year, but for every current producer of dandelion greens I found to talk to, I found just as many former producers.
Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury recently entered the “former producer” category. As Melissa Jacobs, farmstand manager at Pete’s, explained to me, there’s a limited number of bitter greens the farm can sell. She pointed out what a dandelion is up against when it fights for a place in the rotation. “Think about if you have a beautiful, fresh harvested head of radicchio—it’s not a tight, small head like in the supermarket; it has the outer green leaves that are open, and people buy it because it’s so beautiful, even if they don’t know what they’re going to do with it.” The inner radicchio swirls with eye-catching purple, while even the prettiest dandelion greens still look like they hail from roadside weeds.
That said, dandelion greens could one day gain popularity here in Vermont. Strong flavors, including those from wild greens, already sneak into some standard local food offerings. Salad mixes, for example, might include both intentionally planted greens and tasty volunteer plants such as chickweed that find their way into the fields from uncultivated border areas. Dandelion greens can be an economical way to add a new dimension to a salad mix’s flavor that’s no more intrusive than a handful of herbs. This addition is particularly welcome early in the season, when fewer vegetables are available and producers get creative to introduce variety.
Interest in dandelions might also accompany the growing interest in food from other countries, where bitter greens are often incorporated into dishes. In Italy, France, and Greece, for example, there is the classic preparation of parsley salad—parsley with oil, lemon, salt, and sometimes tomato. A salad of all-dandelion works in the same way. As Colin McCaffrey points out, “ The wild stuff [like dandelion, burdock, mustards, marsh marigold] is really strong; to eat an entire American size salad would be pretty heavy duty.” But in a petite side it might be just the trick to start a meal.
A few bites of strong, bitter salad can also provide something that a giant bowl of spinach may not: better digestion. The taste “bitter” tells your body that there’s some food about to come down for digestion and it ought to get ready. Again, we see this use of bitter flavors in other eating traditions, such as with Italy’s Amaro or Campari aperitifs sipped before a meal (or as a digestif afterward). If eating bitter food makes people feel better, perhaps we’ll eat more of it.
Many Vermonters may be perplexed by dandelion, but not all of them are. Melissa Jacobs notes that, “My mother always talked about how her dad loved [dandelion] greens and made salads from them.” Angus Baldwin, who had those CSA members who tossed the greens, found that a few customers swore by them. And Richard Wiswall of Cate Farm in Plainfield, another former producer of dandelion greens (the Taraxacum officinale version, not the chicory), saw interest in the greens from older generations and people more accustomed to European food traditions.
This small, dedicated band of dandelion enthusiasts won’t necessarily catapult dandelions into widespread popularity. However, when I spoke to Jeff Carpenter of Zack Woods Herb Farm in Hyde Park, he mentioned a way that somebody else is making inroads.
Zack Woods Herb Farm sells herbs for medicinal, not culinary, purposes, and all their dandelion roots go to one buyer. Every fall they dig up rows of Taraxacum officinale dandelion root for Urban Moonshine—a Burlington-based bitters company—to use, along with dandelion leaves, in their signature bitters blend. Not every company uses dandelion as a primary bittering agent, but Urban Moonshine welcomes a local source of bitter that is easy to grow. I may tend to walk past wild dandelions, but I rarely walk past Urban Moonshine; I checked my cabinets and, sure enough, saw that I have dandelion-containing bitters in with the teas, and in the liquor cabinet, and in the form of Orleans Bitter from Eden Ice Cider. My kitchen was a dandelion treasure trove.
Jovial King, founder of Urban Moonshine, confirmed that the demand for her bitters is growing quickly. The 15-person company already distributes its product nationally, and when we spoke, Whole Foods had just finished adding these bitters to every store in their Northeast region.
Jovial says Urban Moonshine intends to be “in the forefront of bringing bitter back into the American palate.” Her interest lies primarily with bitters’ medicinal benefits, but she also wants to break down the separation between food and medicine. A market for her bitters already exists in bars and restaurants looking for high-quality, locally sourced cocktail ingredients. Urban Moonshine’s “Cocktail Apothecary” line supports this happy marriage of good taste and good health.
If Urban Moonshine succeeds in bringing “bitter” back to the American palate, dandelion greens may have their day in the sun. Bitter aperitifs can lead to bitter green salads can lead to bitter dandelion greens gracing pizza, pasta, and other dishes all across Vermont. While we’re waiting, I, for one, plan to get out ahead of the curve and buy dandelions for my table this growing season.