Monthly Archives: March 2008

Pass the Dandies

Here’s a thought experiment: Your buddies blindfold you and take you to the local, where you have your usual draft. Someone orders up a plate of Fried Dandies. Hmm…that sounds good, if unfamiliar and maybe a little twee. You munch one down and grab another. Then another. The taste is hard to place. The Fried Dandies are light and crunchy on the outside and a little bit squishy on the inside, but not like seafood. They’re fresh and bright. They’re addictive. You remove the blindfold. Fried dandelion blossoms? Are you kidding? ‘Fraid not, son. Now have another. It’s good for you!

Fried Dandies*

36-48 large** dandelion blossoms
1 cup flour
1 cup ice water
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg

Remove as much of the dandelion stem and greenery as possible without damaging the blossom itself. Heat oil in a skillet on medium high. Mix flour and salt in a bowl. Add ice water and stir. Blend in egg. Use tongs to submerge dandelion blossoms in batter and drop in hot oil. Fry in shifts. Serve with beer.

* adapted from Peter Gail’s Dandelion Celebration.

** The biggest and best dandelions can be found in abandoned lots and field margins—places that see neither mowing nor herbicides. When allowed to grow freely, dandelions can reach impressive size, with blossoms a few inches across.

Dandelicious Omelet

I’ve been talking up superfoods all month. For most of us in temperate regions, our bodies are transitioning from the rigors of winter into the working season (even if we’re working indoors at desks now). Wild greens—many known as “weeds” by the establishment such as stinging nettles and dandelions—aid that transition. They’re high in vitamins and minerals; they have lots of fiber and protein. Folks of yore knew all about them. They made teas and tonics of the superfoods and ate them like vegetables.

Besides the obvious health benefits, there are more modern reasons to harvest wild superfoods. Take a look at my lawn from the street and it looks okay. Not great, but not overrun by so-called weeds. Look a little closer and you’ll see plenty of robust green weed clusters competing with the frail grass, dandelions especially. Only these dandelions don’t have the hydra-like yellow manes to give them away and irritate the neighbors. Where did all the flowers go?

Into my belly, is where. Just a few minutes of snip-snip-snipping out in the front yard and I had enough for an omelet (i.e. a half cup of buds for a small 2-egg omelet). I targeted all the buds that were partially open, with flower stalks exposed halfway down the buds. You can use closed buds as well, but I figured I’d get the first round of ready-to-bloom dandies and then harvest another batch in a few days. Clip off the stem, saute in butter a few minutes (until they fully open) and pour in the eggs. As easy as that.

The taste of a fried dandelion bud is hard to explain. It’s certainly not your usual domesticated fare—it’s savory with a touch of bite, though not bitter, and earthy like wild mushrooms. In an omelet, it’s dandelicious. Said Marty: “What’s that flavor? It’s like a burst of spring, almost citrusy. Like nibbling on a little bit of sunshine.”

Just one more reason to let your lawn do its own thing.

Dandy Time

It’s high time for dandelions in Seattle right now and presumably elsewhere. Northern regions of the interior still locked in snow will have to wait another month. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m not a big fan of the prissy American lawn, that one-note symphony of righteousness that seems to suggest moral rectitude on the part of the homeowner willing to commit himself to a never-ending battle with weeds. This position becomes even more indefensible when one stops to consider the nutritional and culinary value of the enemy.

So, for the neighbors’ benefit, I’ve been doing my part to rid the lawn of weeds. By eating them.

In a quest for superfoods to kick and roll out of winter, FOTL has been enjoying dandy salads for the past month, and sharing the bounty with other…shall we say more skeptical eaters. But in the last week we’ve had a massive dandelion blossoming across the city, meaning it’s now time to change tactics. The leaves of dandelions are delicious while still young and tender. Raw, they have a bite not unlike socially acceptable salad greens such as escarole or chicory. They can also be steamed as a side vegetable, or cooked with a chunk of saltpork like collards.

Once the buds form, though, the leaves start to become bitter. This is when I turn to my trusty copy of The Dandelion Celebration by Dr. Peter Gail, director of the Goosefoot Acres Center for Wild Vegetable Research and Education. Dr. Gail includes recipes for the whole kit-and-caboodle: In addition to 40 pages devoted to just the leafy greens we also get 30-plus that make use of closed buds, opened buds, full flowers, and those amazing (dastardly to lawncare professionals) taproots.

A few examples of recipes using the buds and flowers: Dandelion Flower Muffins, Dandelion Fritters, numerous variations on Dandelion Wine, and the Dandy Omelet. Using roots: Dandelion Coffee and even Dandelion Root Ice Cream (a recipe originally submitted by our own local Herbfarm Restaurant).

In the past I’ve stuck with the tried and true raw greens. This year we’re going deep into the catalog. Expect future reports on the buds (apparently they pop open when fried) and maybe even the roots, although FOTL isn’t quite prepared to give up his dark roast morning java, even if it’s decaf.

The King Is…Dead?

A story has been developing in the last few weeks about the Sacramento River and its mysteriously vanishing run of chinook, or king, salmon. Last year’s run was 10 percent of the run just five years ago, and this year’s is projected to be even smaller. The San Francisco Chronicle has an update.

Is this really a surprise?

Certainly salmon runs fluctuate over time. But when hit with the multi-whammy of dams, development, irrigation, timber harvest, pollution, and innumerable other man-made affronts, even these incredibly resilient fish are finally waving the white flag. What really disturbs me is that the current low runs in the Sacramento might be seen by my children as not so bad when they’re older. This phenomenon is known as the shifting baseline syndrome, and it’s at the heart of our predicament.

It’s painful to imagine a day when salmon swim mostly in city fountains. (Photo by Stephen Rees)

Morel Mania Picking Up

The reports are coming in faster now. Morels are popping in the Peach State. Tennessee and Arkansas are starting to flush, and the mania is marching up the East Coast to both Carolinas and even Virginia. Positive reports are coming out of Missouri, and morels are messing with Texas. Meanwhile, the West Coast is gaining steam. The first morel sighting of the year came from San Diego on February 24, and Oregon had morels by early March, though not in significant numbers. The first sighting near FOTL’s stomping ground hit the wire on March 17, from Bainbridge Island, WA. These were “beauty bark” or landscape morels, early fruiters that stow away in commercial mulches and wood-chips. You can often find these morels in cities and towns, but make sure the mulch hasn’t been sprayed with any nasty chemicals before eating them.

A good place to get an overview of what’s happening nationwide is the Morel Mushroom Hunting Club’s report page.

And you can score at home by following this progress map.

If you’ve found morels, leave a comment for FOTL.

Stinging Nettle Lasagna with Dandelion Salad

“Wake up, it’s spring!” sing the critters in my daughter’s favorite book of the moment. Indeed. It’s about time for a shot of vernal equinox. For those of us who need an extra boost, try mainlining a dose of spring with Stinging Nettle Lasagna, the perfect way to ring in the season. Nettles have been used for millennia to transition the body from the rigors of a long winter. Their taste is wild and woolly—far less housebroken than spinach. And nutritionally, they make spinach look like junk food.

Coupled with a Dandelion Salad, you can’t do yourself better.

For the lasagna, first make the sauce and let it simmer while you’re tending to the other ingredients. All you need is a simple red sauce:

2 28 oz cans diced tomatoes
1 6 oz can tomato paste
Several cloves garlic, minced
1 yellow onion, diced
oregano and/or basil to taste
1 tbsp sugar
salt and pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Saute onions and garlic until soft. Pour in diced tomatoes and simmer, adding water occasionally to cook down tomatoes. Cook at least 30 minutes (the longer, the better) before adding tomato paste, herbs, and sugar. This will make more than enough sauce for a large lasagna.

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the pasta and filling:

12 lasagna noodles
1 32 oz tub of ricotta cheese
1 16 oz ball of mozzarella, grated
Large bunch of stinging nettles, washed and chopped (4-6 cups cooked)

Boil a large pot of water for nettles and lasagna. Blanch stinging nettles 1 minute, remove to salad spinner to drain excess water, and chop. In large bowl mix together nettles and ricotta cheese. Cook pasta in same boiling water, now green with all sorts of good vitamins and nutrients, until al dente. Layer 13 x 9 inch baking dish with enough sauce to cover bottom. Arrange 3-4 lasagna noodles. Cover with 1/2 nettle-ricotta mixture. Spoon over sauce and sprinkle with 1/3 mozzarella. Repeat: noodles, remaining nettle-ricotta mixture, sauce, and 1/3 mozzarella. Add one more layer of noodles followed by remaining sauce and final 1/3 mozzarella.

Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 15 minutes.

For the Dandelion Salad, go snip some dandelion leaves in your yard or a nearby park. Make sure you select only those tender young dandelions that haven’t bloomed yet. Mix the leaves with lettuce or other spring greens.

Voila: A shot of vernal equinox. Happy spring everyone!

Superfood #3

Is there anything more pedestrian in suburban America than the carefully manicured front lawn? As a place to play catch and kick a soccer ball, I’ll let you have your backyard turf. But that front lawn of tidy green grass running from door to sidewalk? That monochromatic parcel of mindless geometry? It needs to go.

My neighbors are forever grappling with the weeds that so easily out-wit them. They pull and mow and dump gallons of fertilizers and herbicides, never mind the ever-dwindling salmon that drink in the polluted run-off. Meanwhile we’ve let our own lawn go to hell, earning the hairy eyeball as property values around us take the hit. One day I’ll rip out the lawn altogether and replace its humdrum bed of grass with a more visually stimulating rock garden of some sort, with native plants that don’t require constant coddling. In the interim I’ll make use of the lawn’s best feature.

The dandelions.

For millennia the dandelion was revered for its medicinal qualities. Consumptives ate its roots in winter and its tender leaves in spring and were restored to health. Now we have vitamin supplements and the once mighty dandelion has been consigned to a long list of pests to be stamped out.

It’s too bad, because people are missing the boat. The vitamin game is no way to stay healthy. Study after study shows that vitamins absorbed through food are far more salubrious than any supplement. I’ve already posted about two “superfoods”—the stinging nettle and watercress. Now add the lowly dandelion to the list. Turns out it’s bursting with vitamins and trace minerals, in part because of those exasperating taproots that can reach two feet or more down into the soil. According to Dr. Peter Gail, president of Defenders of Dandelions, these common weeds “contain more beta-carotene than carrots, more potassium than bananas, more lecithin than soybeans, more iron than spinach, and loads of Vitamins A, C, E, thiamin and riboflavin, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.”

I guess one of these afternoons when the sun is out I’ll resuscitate our ancient lawn mower and make my neighbors happy. But first I’ve got some dandelions to harvest.

Superfood #2: Watercress

I’ve already posted about one wild superfood, stinging nettles. Here’s another: watercress. Besides being really tasty and good for you to boot, watercress is available nearly year-round in much of its range. It’s one of the few greens you can gather in January in these parts. By late winter or early spring it kicks into gear and becomes prolific in some places. I harvested the above watercress from a clean mountain stream while hunting for truffles the other day. The elk prints all over the banks made it clear that I was not the only mammal eager for a crisp, fresh salad.

Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Pancetta, and Wilted Watercress

2 oz. pancetta, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
1 lb gnocchi
4 oz watercress, tough stems removed, coarsely chopped (6 cups packed—but you can make do with half that amount)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Cook pancetta over medium heat in skillet until it begins to brown. Add garlic, stirring for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, sugar, and crushed red pepper, stirring until tomatoes are almost completely broken down, about 5 minutes. Stir in vinegar and salt. Remove from heat.
2. Boil gnocchi until they float, 3 to 5 minutes (or according to package instructions). Place watercress in colander and drain gnocchi over watercress, wilting it slightly. Add gnocchi and watercress to sauce in pan; toss. Serve immediately with Parmesan. Makes 4 servings of about 1 cup each.

Careful Harvest

Here at FOTL we’re in full nettle harvest mode. The other day I found Stinging Nettle Nirvana. The combative buggers were everywhere. It was a bushwhacker’s nightmare. The only problem is these huge patches are on city property… Scofflawing aside, the time is now to harvest. (Don’t forget your rubber gloves.) Soon the nettles near sea level will be too big. I’ve been finding the best ones in shady areas; nettles in full sun or even partial sun are much more robust and less tender, while the wispy shade-dwellers can be nipped off stalk and all.

We’ve got nettles drying on screens with a fan on high, nettles in bags waiting to be blanched and frozen, and a bucket of Sweet Potato Nettle Soup in the fridge. Soon the nettles will start emerging higher up in elevation. That’s one of the many nice things about living close to mountains: the season is much longer. Foragers in the flat states have about a month or six weeks to gather their nettles before they become too bitter and stringy. Here in the Northwest, our season starts in late February and extends well into June. The same is true for morels. While May is morel month in much of the country, I’ve seen reports of morels found on north-facing slopes in the Cascades well into September.

I saw my first salmonberry blossoms the other day while picking nettles. Seems kind of late for this area. No doubt the overwintering Anna’s hummingbirds have these early flowers dialed in.