When the early Italian immigrants came to the United States, they were criticized for eating foraged weeds such as dandelion. It was thought that they were shorter than average Americans because they weren’t getting the right nutrition–that the meat-and-potatoes diet with plenty of milk was better than the high-vegetable diet of the immigrants. Of course, we now know that is not true, thanks in part to Ancel Keys, who enlightened the world about the Mediterranean diet in the 1950s.
Dandelion is one such weed, rich in so many nutrients. Since ancient times, in the Middle East and Asia, it was used as medicine. It’s good for digestion, to strengthen bones, to protect against Alzheimer’s, to protect the eyes or to detox. A great source of Vitamins K and A, it also contains Vitamin C, B6, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, magnesium, copper, folate, and phosphorus.
My earliest memories of dandelion are of the puffballs that we would pick and blow to watch the little wisps fly through the air. Little did we know they were seeds and we were helping new dandelions to grow. Not that they need help. They are everywhere, and while some view them as a pest, others view them as a treasure.
When I was growing up, my mom had a friend who would bring us dandelion greens from her garden. We laughed because this friend was fishing for gossip whenever she brought these over, so we associated dandelion greens with gossip.
Besides eliciting gossip, dandelion has many uses. The greens can be eaten fresh or cooked, the roots can be ground into a coffee substitute, and the flowers can be made into wine, as many of the early Italian immigrants did.
Italians eat the dandelion greens in salads or cooked with garlic and olive oil. They can be bitter, so it is best to blanch them before cooking, especially the more mature leaves. We then saute them in garlic and olive oil.
However, I prepared them the way Julie Ann Sageer recommends in her new Julie Taboulie’s Lebanese Kitchen cookbook, blanched and sautéed with caramelized onions.
To cook dandelions, wash them first. They are not very dirty like some greens can be. Chop off the large stems from the bottom. Then roughly chop them. Blanch them. They are kind of like spinach. You have to squeeze them to get the water out. You can then saute them with caramelized onions, as in the cookbook, or you can saute them with sliced garlic and olive oil, the Italian way. Either way, they are a nutritious addition to any meal and definitely should not be overlooked in the garden!
–Dina Di Maio