Green and Greener

If you have ever lived with a lawn, you have lived with dandelions. Rather, you have probably spent a good amount of time trying to avoid living with them, no? Most lawn manicurists view dandelions as the bane of their existence, right up there with toad stools, violets, and pervasive clover beds.

We have a lawn, a very small lawn, and no one would accuse us of being lawn fussy. Ours is rife with all sorts of common weeds, and most of the time said weeds and host family peacefully co-exist. We have made a pact: the weeds let us trim them down once every week or two, and in return, we allow them to unfurl new growth in between mows. It’s a live and let live kind of symbiosis that has worked for us.

It never occurred to me that we might have a different sort of symbiotic relationship, the weeds and I. Not until this past Tuesday when I picked up the weekly produce share at Middle Earth Farm and was offered a choice between bunched greens. Escarole or dandelion? I was asked. Well, which would you choose?

As ever, curiosity got the better of me. Escarole is an old friend but I had never eaten dandelion greens, although, of course, I have long known they are edible. The flower petals are fermented into dandelion wine, the flower buds sometimes get pickled and used like capers, and the leaves – the calcium and vitamin rich greens – are often eaten raw in salads or cooked down with garlic much like spinach or chard.

Everything I read this week about dandelion greens prepared me for an extremely bitter green, but on the bitterness scale, I  put them on a par with curly endive and also the escarole I passed over, but not nearly as assertive as broccoli rabe. The wild bitter notes of any or all of these plants shouldn’t be masked; instead, embrace the complexity of flavor. But the note of bitter is well served by introducing balance: with the bite of garlic, the heat of  chiles, the smooth richness of olive oil, and a flourish of salty cheese or just a generous sprinkle of salt throughout the cooking and at the finish. Although not necessary, a quick blanching to tame the tougher stalks will tame a bit of the blunt edged taste too.

Another of the week’s CSA treasures, green garlic, was also new to me. I used a hefty fresh bulb and most of the stalk of this treat as the base aromatic for a sauté of  dandelion greens and pancetta that would sauce Saturday’s pasta dinner. A regular old garlic clove or two would make a fine substitute. You could also serve the sautéed greens, sans pasta, as a side dish for any meal. Dandelions for dinner may force you to rethink your lawn as a breeding ground for only grass.

Pasta with Spicy Dandelion Greens and Green Garlic

  • 3/4 pound of your favorite long pasta (I used fettuccine)
  • 1 generous bunch dandelion leaves, tough root ends and any tough stalks trimmed
  • 1/4 pound slice of pancetta, cut into strips and then cubed (Vegetarians may omit the pancetta altogether, but make sure to properly salt the dish to taste)
  • up to 4 Tbsp. good olive oil
  • 1 large or 3 small bulbs of green garlic, plus the tender portion of the green stalks, sliced (or 2 garlic cloves, chopped)
  • 1/2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • kosher salt

Wash the trimmed dandelion leaves well, and cut them crosswise into 3- or 4-inch pieces. Bring a large pot of water to boil. When boiling, salt the water and submerge the leaves in the boiling water. Blanch for about 3 minutes. Remove the leaves to a colander, rinse under cold water, and let drain.

Start another large pot of water to boil for the pasta.

As the pasta water comes up to the boil, heat a large and heavy skillet set over medium heat. When the pan is hot, add the cubed pancetta to the hot pan. Reduce the heat to medium low to avoid burning and smoking, and cook the pancetta until it is golden brown and crisp all over, stirring occasionally. This may take up to 20 minutes. When browned, removed the pancetta to a piece of paper towel to drain.

Add about 2 Tbsp. of olive oil to the still hot pan. Turn the heat to medium and add the sliced fresh garlic. Cook the garlic, stirring, until it softens, goes translucent, and then develops a pale gold color. Stir often during the process.

Once the garlic has become the color of straw, add a little more olive oil if the pan looks too dry, then add the red pepper flakes and the blanched dandelion greens. Stir a bit to coat the greens and then taste for salt. Pancetta is salty, and the fats in the pan will have absorbed some of that salt, but if the greens taste a little flat at this point, add a pinch or more of salt to the pan. Sauté the mixture over moderate heat, stirring often, until the greens are quite tender and pliant, about 20 minutes.

As the greens cook, salt the boiling pasta water and cook the pasta to its desired doneness. Reserve about a half cup of the pasta cooking water and then drain the cooked pasta.

Add the pasta immediately to the cooked greens. Toss in the reserved pancetta and stir together with the pasta and greens, using a little pasta cooking water to moisten the mixture if necessary.

Serve immediately with shaved parmesan cheese.

©2012  Jane A. Ward