Free food: What could be better?
Dandelion greens: Maine’s gastronomic secret in the early days of spring (and it is still very early spring here on the coast, even on the first of May), harvested from lawns and fields, wherever foragers can be comfortable that no noxious poisons have been sprayed. My mother always made sure we had what she called a mess of greens just as soon as they popped up on the abandoned winter lawns that were just beginning to green, and she continued to harvest them throughout the spring weeks until the flowers began to emerge. She said we needed them for the iron, and she was right, they are a good source of iron, along with several potent vitamins, especially A and K. These same greens are called cicoria in Tuscany, where they’re equally prized but more apt to be harvested in March when Maine’s dandelions still huddle under ground, and sometimes, as this year, under a deep blanket of snow.
They should be easy to find. I spent the first warm day of April cruising my yard with a sharp paring knife and cutting down just underneath the leaves and keeping a bit of the root which I like for the edge of bitterness it adds to the already bitter greens. (That root, by the way, can be dried, roasted, and ground for a coffee substitute which is what the old-timers often did.) It took me about 30 minutes in the pleasant morning to harvest enough greens for two people, without really trying very hard.
The onerous part is cleaning them. As you can see, there’s quite a lot of soil clinging to the roots and the base of the leaf cluster. All that has to be cleaned thoroughly, and if you have a bit of root at the bottom, try to pare away the brownish outside. Then rinse the greens and rinse again, in at least three changes of water–or, clearly, until there is no grit in the bottom of the washing basin. They can go right into a saucepan, with the water clinging to their leaves, and cook over very low heat, covered, until they are thoroughly limp and wilted. You might have to add a couple of tablespoons of water to the pan to keep the greens from scorching, but if you add too much, they will boil instead of steaming. Once they’re done, I like to give them a Tuscan treatment, draining them and then adding them to a skillet with a little olive oil and a chopped clove of garlic. Let the greens finish cooking and absorbing all the good flavors of the garlic and oil. A spoonful of wine vinegar and a sprinkle of salt at the very end and they are ready to serve, on their own, as an accompaniment to any kind of meat, or piled (again, Tuscan fashion) on a crisply toasted crust of bread that gets moistened by all the tasty, oily juices. That could be a meal in itself.