• Eating weeds
    By Lisa Harris | June 03,2008
     

    I finally did it. For years I have been cursing the weeds, wasting my time and energy glaring out the window at the lush green and golden flower patch affectionately called "the vegetable garden."

    Weeds are a burden and a chore, and a barrier to the enjoyment of getting out there with my hands in the dirt, sowing neat rows of tiny seeds just barely beneath the surface, and nestling some soft green seedlings into the brown, fertile earth. They seem so fragile, those little plants and "plants to be." I'm always amazed at how small they are when they start, barely standing up on their own. But they do, indeed, flourish and grow, giving us the sustenance we need to keep us alive and healthy.

    It's a cool, sunny spring afternoon when I venture down to the basement and rummage around for my garden tools.

    A Snow & Nealley cultivator, weed slicer and trowel were given to me when I left office life to head into the kitchen. It was time to break out of my cocoon – an office cubicle, a desk and a regular 9 to 5 job – and follow my passion for cooking. I had just graduated from NECI but was still torn between using all the education I had garnered in wildlife management and environmental policy, and my recent training as a chef. So my office mates wished me well and sent me on my way to the Shelburne Farms kitchen with the little cloth bag of tools, since I was told I might help out with the herb garden there. But that's a completely different story.

    I take my handy tools out to the garden and survey the weeds. Today's target: dandelions.

    The sharp-toothed greens can be found in the supermarket, at specialty food stores, and the co- op selling for about $3.49 a bunch. If I harvested the entire yard, I could probably come up with one month's rent. Needless to say, I've never bought dandelion greens. It just didn't make sense to buy something from the store that I could go home and stare at from the comfort of my own living room.

    As I stepped into the "garden" I noticed how beautiful the dandelions were – big dark green leaves, low to the ground, and looking very succulent. The flowers hadn't even begun to show in most of them. Perfect time to harvest.

    I took a deep breath, knelt down among the healthy plants, and slid the trowel beneath the leaves. Their taproots were well established, and I had to pry them out with care so they wouldn't leave anything behind. But hey, even if I did that meant more for later. I like this shift in my thinking. So I gently shook off as much soil as I could, along with the snails and occasional slug clinging to the leaves, and placed them in a pile. They must be good, I thought, since the snails are happily munching on them already.

    Everywhere I looked the ground was blanketed with dandelions. I started to feel a little overwhelmed and just kept telling myself only pick what you can and don't worry about the rest. This is a big first step, so make it a good experience. Besides, I still had to clean them before eating them.

    It didn't take long to fill my bag. But I must admit I didn't get to them that day. I kept them outside in the cool evening air, hoping they would stay fresh until the morning. Thank goodness for Vermont spring weather. They were fine the next day.

    As I brought the bag into the kitchen I realized why they are costly – it takes a bit of work to clean them. Especially with all of the toothy lobes that can trap grit and other weeds and critters. After untangling them from each other, shaking them off one more time, and cutting off the roots it took about three or four washings to get them clean. I ended up with five half-gallon-size bags full.

    To put my mind at ease, I Googled dandelion greens to make sure I didn't harvest some kind of dandelion look-alike that would poison me. I'm a novice when it comes to foraging, so it's important to be careful. The coast was clear. According to the Web site there are no other plants that look the same that are unfit to eat. Chicory is the only other one, but even if I picked those it would be OK. I also looked up some recipes. I had heard they were a bitter green that sometimes turns people off. But I'm a greens kind of eater, and love the bitter flavors of mustard, radicchio, endive, and the baby greens in mesclun mixes.

    Back to the kitchen I went with a couple of possible recipes. One suggested Indian curry spices to cut the bitterness, while the other used tamari and tofu. They were both vegetarian options. I decided to use my own judgment, as I love to do and often with success, so I took a bite of one of the leaves to get a sense of what I was working with. It was barely bitter. Actually, it had more of a savory green flavor, not unlike collards or chard. The mustard greens I had cooked up earlier in the week were much more bitter than these.

    I had some bacon from Sugar Mountain Farm of West Topsham in the fridge, so I decided to treat them like the greens that they are. I cut the bacon into bite-size pieces and cooked it in a big cast iron skillet for some smoky saltiness. Diced onions went in next with a little olive oil, sure to add their sweetness to the mix to help balance what little bitterness the greens had. I threw in a chopped- up carrot, too, also adding some sweet flavors. When those were all soft and starting to release their sugars I tossed in the chopped dandelion greens. Salt and pepper to taste. I let it all cook down until the greens were tender. Just for fun I threw in some Jack Daniels for some added moisture and more depth.

    They were delicious.

    I ate them with some macaroni and cheese, a common combination from my childhood – greens and macaroni – apparently a Southern influence from my grandparents' day.

    The dandelion greens were very tasty with the cheese accompaniment, making me think that they would make a wonderful quiche. Their flavor is strong enough to hold up to even the sharp cheddars and tangy blues.

    I think I'll try that tonight. Dandelion quiche.

    It was a great accomplishment to begin making peace with the weeds. Now when I go into the garden I will be more inspired to harvest them, rather than wrench them out and let the compost pile have all that goodness.

    Lisa Harris lives in East Montpelier and is on the Board of the Vermont Fresh Network. Her most recent chef work involved promoting local foods with NOFA-VT's wood-fired pizza oven.

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