Dancing Tomatoes

How many times have those of us with a garden looked out over carefully tended beds and small patches of lawn with satisfaction, only to notice a flaw in the image.  It starts out small and surreptitious, sending its taproot far down into the soil, its deep, dark, jagged leaves spreading out flush with the grass so they are almost invisible.  And then, one fine day, a straight, hollow stalk shoots up into the air with a bright yellow flower at its end and, yes, you’ve got dandelions in the garden.

Shuddering Gardener

Why do they make the gardener shudder then run to the forked metal tool that reaches into the soil to break the root and pull out the plant? Because within days the dandelion can muddy up the flower bed, pock the grass with an avid clan of plants that will eventually smother any attempt to keep the place perfectly organized.

Dandelion Solution à la Francaise

The French have a solution, and it is the same one they apply to so many edible plants. They harvest dandelions plants, trim and clean them up, and toss them with a vinaigrette or sauté them with garlic and bacon.  For what the French know is that dandelions are nutritional treasures, filled with potassium and vitamin A, among other things.  It is also, hesitantly but with some scientific hope, being studied as a cure for cancer. The common name for dandelion is “pissenlit” which literally translates as “wet the bed”.  That’s because one of the dandelion’s attributes is as a diuretic.   It’s other common name in France is “dents de lion,”  or lion’s teeth.  The reason is obvious.

Treatment for Nearly Everything

So many cultures have traditionally appreciated the benefits of the dandelion, from the Chinese who administered it to treat stomach problems, to the First People who used it for everything from skin rashes to heartburn.  I know that my grandmother, born in 1892 and a wonderful cook, used it as an accompaniment to meat or seafood simply because she loved its flavor. But I’m certain she also understood it as a nutritional complement to whatever she served.

Among the attributes of this humble and, yes, annoying denizen of garden and field is the latex that flows from it in the form of what many call dandelion “milk”.   During the Second World War, this substance supplemented the feeble rubber supply needed for tires.  Today, with rubber in increasingly short supply who knows? The dandelion may emerge as increasingly valuable. 

Culinary Merits Prevail

For our purposes, though, its culinary merits prevail.  When harvested young, from field, pasture, or garden, it is tender and so green tasting that you immediately fall under its spell.  The word “toothsome” was invented to describe the flavor and texture of the dandelion, for you must chew it, yet it isn’t tough.  My favorite dandelion memory, though, comes from the fields near a farm in the Dordogne where I spent a lot of my early culinary years.  Throughout the spring I would go out to the field, blunt kitchen knife and bucket in hand, and dream my way through the dandelion harvest.  The plants there were small and, once rinsed free of any dirt or stones would curl into little balls of flavor.  I’d cut them in half and often find embryonic flowers at the base which were tender and oh so sweet, the reward of the forager!

Garlic as a Best Friend

Here I take the humble dandelion and sauté it with garlic, best friend to the dandelion green, to serve as a side dish. Please try it, you’ll love it.  If your garden is untreated, harvest the first generation of dandelion which will be the most tender. If you live in the country, be sure no sheep have grazed in recent memory in the field where you plan to harvest, for they leave behind unfriendly bacteria.  But with those things in mind – best in early spring; no sheep – go for the gorgeously flavored pissenlit.  You will love it.

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