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GARDEN FRESH : The Dandelion: A Weed in Its Place

March 17, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Even the most city-bred among us at some time in childhood bent down and plucked a puff of dandelion, blew on it and watched, transfixed, as a zillion seeds on silken wings sailed away on the wind.

Then some of us grew up to be gardeners and installed lawns. Rather than being transfixed by the blowballs, the adult in us now gets agitated. Out the plants come by their roots, usually with a curse.

Never was the definition of a weed more apt than for the dandelion: a plant out of place. Certainly dandelions don't belong in a manicured lawn. But with their raggedy leaves in ebullient rosettes, dandelions are a joy in the border. Set their sprays of green beside bright primroses and dahlias. Lend their sauciness to sedate sages and kales.

Back to childhood. If any of us knew the leaves beneath the puffs were good for us, there'd have been fewer seeds on the wind. No self-respecting child has anything to do with something healthy.

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So next time you pull up a dandelion when it's out of place (assuming it has never been sprayed), bring it into the kitchen. The thinnish, slightly succulent leaves are lightly bitter--refreshing in the manner of curly endive. With its forgiving nature, dandelion will nourish you mightily. The raw leaves have twice the beta carotene of beet greens, as much iron as spinach and as much calcium as turnip greens.

In its season, every part of the dandelion can be enjoyed. As is the case with most plants, the leaves are tenderest and most delicately flavored before the plants flower. Of course, raw dandelion leaves are an enchanting addition to tossed salads. Pick them as small as you can so you'll have the pleasure of seeing a whole indented leaf-- don't waste the effect by tearing it into pieces.

If you nip off buds as they come along, you'll keep the leaves virginal. The trick is to have enough plants dappled through the garden so you can let some flowers bloom. Summer's small golden daisy-like flowers are also charming in salads. Were you to have bucketfuls, you could make a delicate and flowery golden wine (ask your local library for a book on homemade wines). And if you let a few flowers turn into fairy puffs, your supply of fresh plants for next season will be assured. Then in autumn, the large roots may be cooked as parsnips. Or slowly roast the roots until dry and dark brown, finely grind them, then brew them into a lusty sort of coffee.

Now dandelion leaves are classed as a potherb--one of the greens that rise so easily in spring they're disprized. Potherbs are traditionally dropped into a simmering pot along with savory vegetables such as carrots and onions to make an invigorating soup.

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You'll also read about potherbs being cooked like spinach. For my part, I don't fancy a mess of boiled dandelion greens. Whether raw or barely cooked, I like to use them as an accent. I'm partial to slicing slender greens into ribbons. When a recipe calls for leaves of chicory, arugula, escarole, curly endive or Italian parsley, for example, I play with dandelion leaves in their place.

Bear in mind that, as with other greens that are wild at heart, lemon buffs the rough edges and makes dandelion's flavor shine.

Italians have a gift for lifting what others consider lowly to the inspired. Especially in compositions of pasta. Mix al dente rigatoni with chopped, softened sun-dried tomatoes, ribbons of dandelion leaves, thinly sliced celery, minced garlic (all these vegetables raw), olive oil and lemon juice. Toss piping-hot cheese tortellini with ribbons of dandelion leaves and fine shreds of lemon zest, dress with olive oil and wisps of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (ready-to-cook tortellini are available in many deli cases). Chop dandelion leaves and mix with toasted pine nuts--melted butter this time with the lemon juice--into translucent egg noodles.

Another Italian way is to thread ribbons of raw dandelion leaves through rich broth, then top with grated cheese.

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The confusing thing is that when you see greens labeled Italian dandelions in the market or a catalogue, they're not dandelion but chicory. There are several dandelion-like chicories, and their leaves can grow a foot long. True dandelion leaves are rarely longer than the span of a hand.

Now in these sensuous days when even water comes in designer flavors, there are designer dandelions. Naturally, they're French. They are refined forms of our childhood dandelion, the leaves a bit larger and the flavor a bit milder. With names such as Amelior and Verte de Montmagny, they are beautiful.

Dandelions are hardy perennials, that is, they'll be evergreen in a balmy garden and return after frost in a frosty garden for years. Although some say the plants lose quality after the first year and recommend pulling them up, I don't. I find that it depends on the plant's quality of life. Although they'll grow generously almost anywhere, what makes dandelions happy is well-drained soil in full sun, and they'll beam if their soil is fertile.

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