When I was young, I’d watch my grandmother head outside with her little, sharp knife and a bowl to dig dandelion greens for our noon “dinner.” Served alongside boiled potatoes, some green beans canned the previous summer, and some sort of meat, the dandelions would be forked up into individual bowls, slathered with butter, doused in apple-cider vinegar, and sprinkled with salt and pepper.
As a kid, I didn’t really care about dandelion greens one way or another. I’d been taught to eat my vegetables and to clean my plate. I do remember the inevitable crunching grittiness between my teeth when a sly bit of sand managed to cling to some furled bit of greenery despite a vigorous soaking and rinsing. Sometimes the greens were bitter. Sometimes not so much. Now I know it probably depended on how far along in the season we were. The newer, the more tender and sweet. The older, the tougher and more bitter.
Dandelions were part of the world of my grandparents–right along with the compost pile beside the garden, the raspberry patch out back, my grandfather’s old John Deere coverups hanging on the hallway coatrack, ice cream for dessert, and my grandmother’s office area cluttered with the paraphenalia of her freelance newspaper reporting gig.
So, the other day when I went out to inspect the perennial beds, I noticed these pretty little dandelion plants growing nearby. In a fit of nostalgia (and thinking about all the great nutrients in these naturally-grown, non-chemicalized, FREE greens) I ran inside for a sharp, little knife and cut a couple of bunches to cook up for my lunch. Since I was just recovering from a bout of upset stomach, the thought of butter and vinegar didn’t do it for me, so I came up with my own recipe for a healthy noon dinner.
First, I put the greens into a large bowl, filled the bowl with water, and let the greens soak. While they were in their bath, I boiled some rice pasta and drained it. I lifted the greens out of the bowl and poured the water and grit out, rinsed the greens with running water from the tap, and put them into a flat skillet with just a little bit of water to boil/steam them.
In another skillet, I poured about two tablespoons of olive oil and put it on low heat. I peeled a large clove of garlic, cut it into three pieces and cooked the garlic in the oil for a few minutes to infuse the oil with flavor, taking care not to burn the garlic. I removed the garlic with a spoon, leaving just the oil, and then I drained the greens which were then tender and bright green. I chopped the greens into bite-sized pieces on a cutting board, threw the pasta and dandelions into the oil, and tossed everything together with a little bit of sea salt. Voila! NOT my grandmother’s dandelion greens!
The flavor of this dish was very mild. I may try it again with chopped garlic I will leave in the oil, maybe some grape tomatoes cut into halves, even a few muchrooms perhaps. It would be good with parmesan cheese sprinkled on top, I imagine.
Or, I may just boil up a mess-a-dandelions and pour on the old vinegar. Sometimes you just can’t improve on perfection.
In any case, foraging for food is as old as humanity itself. There is nothing more local than gathering a bunch of wild greens. (Of course, if you have sprayed your lawn with chemical fertilizers and/or herbicides or have any other reason to think your dandelions might not be completely safe . . . do not eat them! If you have any question, contact your cooperative extension or other knowledgeable person in your area. Just because I eat weeds, doesn’t mean you have to!)
It seems to me that people used to know how to do this, to go out into the wild and find nutritious food to eat. Wild berries, the bark of certain trees for medicinal purposes, mushrooms, greens, and who knows what else! I’m certain my grandparents retained some of this knowledge. But something happened from that Depression-era generation and the next. I guess food became industrialized and convenient (though it’s hard to imagine anything more convenient than cutting dandelions out of your front lawn at noontime.) Maybe it was just the idea of modernity, of progress. There were those Kennedy years, those space-travel years that gave the world Tang to drink!
I like what is happening now. I see signs of a return to the old ways. Books are published about preserving food without canning or freezing, incorporating old-fashioned lacto-fermentation methods. (PRESERVING FOOD WITHOUT CANNING OR FREEZING by The Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont. ISBN: 1-890132-10-1.
There is the Slow Food movement. There is the Permaculture movement. Every week it seems there is an article in a newspaper or a story on the news about a farmer’s market opening up, or a community garden going in, or a go-local movement afoot. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to search out some pre-WWII cookbooks, perhaps, or ferret some old-fashioned cooking/preserving tools at antique stores and ask the elders how to use them. I’m searching for one of those heavy metal meat grinders that screw onto the edge of your table, for example.
We can have a slower-paced life with a more personal connection to the food we eat. We can find like-minded people in our communities and share our discoveries, successes, and failures. We need to stop for a minute and imagine what we want our world to look like, to feel like, and then we need to chose those ways that will best bring our vision to reality. We won’t always agree, and that’s okay. But a little respectful debate is much healthier than simply accepting what the powers-that-be shove on us. At least, that’s what I’m thinking . . . Outside the Box.