Ah, the first foraging of spring. While we’re winding down the winter storage pantry and planting seeds that will produce food weeks for now, I get excited about the foodstuffs that just appear. We have pots full of chives, lovage and sorrel peaking up in enough volume to harvest, and a lawn full of violets and dandelions. In a town with green manicured perfection, we’re not the best neighbors, but our gigantic black walnut tree would thwart any perfect growth. That’s our excuse, other than the fact that we eat our lawn.
Dandelions are great eating. So great that they’re cultivated and celebrated. I think the leaves are at their best when the flowers are just starting to open or just before. I haven’t researched why, but I observe that leafy varieties with nascent flowers thrive under our pines, yielding medium-large and uncomplicated leaves. In the lawn itself, the leaves “whorl” close to the ground and defy cutting but produce prodigious blossoms. Since I think of weeding as harvest, I go for both the greens and the flowers. (If you do this, make sure to pick dandelions that are from an area untouched by car fumes, pesticides or dogs.)
Young dandelion leaves are tender like spinach and piquant like young arugula, both increasing in bitterness with age. We eat them raw as salad, puree them into pesto for spooning on potatoes or pasta, or sauté or wilt them to serve as greens. I turn the flowers into syrup and jelly but also use them in risotto. Today, I set out to make risotto with rice, but when I read in the New York Times that conventional rice in this country contains arsenic due to pesticide and fertilizer residue from previous crops (such as cotton in the south), I freaked out and switched to barley.
Barley can be cooked the same way as Arborio rice to make risotto (the word comes from “rice” so I’m referring to its cooking technique). I used pearled barley, and even so, found that the grains took a little longer to cook and needed a little more liquid than rice. Blanched and drained dandelion greens were folded in near the end of the cooking period, and the dish was garnished with the yellow tufts of dandelion flowers.
Barley “Risotto” with Dandelion Leaves and Flowers
1 small onion, finely chopped
Butter (or olive oil)
¾ c pearled barley
¼ c white wine
4 c chicken stock, warmed
A few handfuls of dandelion greens
¼ c grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Garnish: a few dandelion flowers, yellow petals removed from the green bract
In a medium-large saucepan over medium heat, lightly sauté the onion in a little butter or olive oil until soft. Add the barley and stir to coat the grains. Add the wine and cook until the wine is evaporated. Start adding the stock, about ¼ c at a time, regulating the heat to keep the liquid at a simmer. The risotto should cook in 25-30 minutes. About 10 minutes before the end, you will add dandelion greens cooked as described below.
Wash and trim the dandelion greens and add them to a small amount of salted boiling water. As soon as they’re nearing tenderness, drain them and squeeze out excess liquid. Chop them lightly and add to the risotto while it is cooking.
When the grains are tender, remove the risotto from heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, garnished with dandelion flowers if desired.
Serves 3-4 as a light main dish or substantial side dish.