Dandelion, or ‘tooth of the lion’ (from the French, dent de lion) is not a glamor item on everyone’s table — it’s good for you, can be bitter, and takes a little work. Although it is said the name derives from its tooth-like shape, I sometimes wonder if it derived from the bite of bitterness these leaves can sometimes pack. Personally, I like that flavor, especially when tempered with the right things. Typically, these things are fats, acid, and sweetness.
If the greens have thick stems that need trimming, I use a long thin bladed knife that has a bit of flex and is very sharp. Lay the leaf flat on the work surface and the blade parallel to the leaf and slide it from tip to base, shaving the stem thin. Doing this on a raised cutting board makes this easier as you can have the handle off the work surface.
When choosing dandelions greens, look for leaves that are bright and stems that are firm. Avoid any limp, wilted, or yellowing greens. They come in a few varieties — some, in fact, are chicories, while others are true dandelions, just like in the yard. The chicories have thicker, tougher stems that come in red or green; the others have a soft stem, but both can have an astringent flavor. The smaller and paler leaves tend to be softer, and less bracing. Larger leaves will stand up to vigorous cooking and will have big flavor.
Folk medicine claimed that dandelions were good ‘blood cleansers’ and were traditionally eaten after winter to clear out the fats. Dandelions have a diuretic effect, and in France another name for them is pissenlit, or ‘wet the bed.’ Aside from this, dandelions are the most nutritious leafy vegetable you can buy for vitamin, mineral, and anti-oxidant content: 187 mg of calcium, 35 mg vitamin C, 3 mg of iron, and 8 mg of beta carotene makes this a good vegetable to learn to like.
I like to use dandelions in a variety of ways, from classic bistro style salads, and frittatas, to side dishes sautéed or braised, tossed with pasta or whole grains. I think dandelion calls out for smokiness, so I like bacon with these greens. For a meatless option, try diced smoked tofu. For sweetness, I like apple juice or Norman style hard-cider. Add a splash of cream, and finish the dish with a drizzle of cider vinegar. This dish is a balancing act of sweet, creamy, and slightly bitter. Poached eggs are a classic foil for salads of dandelions, and nut oils in dressings are marvelous, too. Big crunchy croutons and garlic fit well here, too.
A pound of dandelions cooks down to less than a cup of greens, so keep this in mind when purchasing. At the farmers market, look for dandelions at Pinnacle, Route One, Four Sisters, T & L Coke Farm, and Bar-D Ranch. Give these spring harbingers a try and wake up your taste buds from winter’s torpor.