"But they're weeds."
My much better half is not, shall we say, "adventurous" when it comes to greens: A "real" salad is built around a wedge of iceberg or chopped romaine. Stewed collards are fine for New Year's Eve, and sautéed spinach can make an occasional appearance at the dinner table. But that's where the love ends. Forget arugula and radicchio, and don't even think about frisee.
So when I pitched dandelion greens for dinner the other night, well, you can probably understand the breathless shock.
Dandelions are an assertive green, just ask any gardener who's had to battle them on the front lawn or in cracks on the driveway. Unwanted, any greens are "weeds."
But have you ever bitten into a dandelion leaf? The flavor is tangy, even borderline bitter, with a definite texture. It's an assertiveness that can work wonders in the kitchen, provided you know how to handle it and pair the greens with complementary flavors.
That night for dinner, I served dandelion greens with bacon, a natural combination. I rendered a few strips of chopped bacon, tossing in freshly chopped garlic — another natural dandelion pairing — just before the bacon crisped. In went a bunch of chopped dandelions, as I stirred to wilt them in hot bacon fat. I finished the dish with a drizzle of sherry vinegar and a touch of maple syrup, the vinegar cutting through the heaviness of the bacon and the syrup helping to tame the bitterness of the greens.
Later at the table, I looked over and saw both of our plates were clean. Now it was my turn to be shocked. Success.
Pushing the envelope, I decided to try dandelions in pesto. Using a mortar and pestle (really the only way to make pesto; the grinding releases so much more flavor than the blades of a blender or food processor), I ground garlic with a little coarse salt, then added pine nuts, working the mixture to a paste. I slowly added chopped dandelion greens in place of traditional basil, layering the flavors with grated cheese, fruity olive oil and a touch of lemon juice as the bright green pesto came together.
I tossed the pesto with linguine and casually placed it on the table. With each bite, the ground raw garlic and dandelion were balanced with buttery pine nuts and creamy cheese. A pesto with a bit more of a "bite," perhaps, but it worked well with pasta and could easily work as a dip for crostini or vegetables. The verdict? Another winner.
Finally, I decided to go all in with a dandelion salad. Because the greens would be more prominent in this dish, I used tender, new leaves for a gentler flavor. I tossed the leaves with sliced onion, toasted pecans and crumbled goat cheese, sweetening the salad with raisins and blood orange segments, and dressing the salad lightly with sherry vinegar and oil.
I could feel the quiet skepticism as I placed the salad on the table. One bite. Then another. Several slow, thoughtful bites before the silence was broken and the verdict came down:
"You know? I still think they're weeds, but dandelions aren't that bad."