The dandelion greens sold in supermarkets are not the same breed of plant as the yellow flowered weeds we see squeezing from between the cracks in sidewalks or smiling up from cemetery lawns. “Dandelion” is a common name that comes to English from the Medieval Latin dens leonis, meaning “lion’s tooth,” and it has been applied without precision to a number of different weedy annual herbs that have jagged edges to their leaves. Scientists recognize over 1200 subspecies of the common parking lot dandelion, which they know as Taraxacum officinale. The word Taraxacum comes from the Greek words taraxos and akos, meaning, respectively “disorder” and “remedy.” Wild dandelions are considered medicinal plants as well as spring salad greens and are used in traditional cultures as a diuretic. The diuretic aspect gave wild dandies one of the more colorful names in culinary botany, pissenlit in French or pissabed in English. In some places, like Italy, tender young Taraxacum officinale dandelions are still gathered from the wild or grown on farms. There they are sold in the markets as “wild chicories,” even when they’re cultivated and even though a botanist will tell you they are not technically chicories. (If you want to pick fights with traditionally minded Italian shoppers over the proper scientific Latin names for their common vegetables or about the arcane details of botanical taxonomy, go ahead, but I won’t be there to back you up!)
The plant usually sold as “dandelion” in the U.S. is related only distantly to the sidewalk dandelion, though both are members of the same sprawling plant family, the Compositae, along with lettuces, artichokes, sunflowers, and thistles. The scientific name for cultivated dandelions is Chicorium intybus. The chicories that we call “dandelions” are more commonly known in Europe as Catalogna chicories, presumably because they were first developed in Catalonia. If allowed to bloom, a Catalan dandelion will show off a multi-branched spray of lovely, sky-blue flowers instead of the solitary yellow flower-head of a pissabed dandy. To make dandelion nomenclature even more complex, there is a vertitable tribe of different kinds of “Catalogna dandelions” within the Chicorium intybus, including some varieties whose leaves are smooth, defying the whole reason for calling them “lion’s teeth” in the first place.
Because dandelion chicories grow well during our cool California winters I grew three kinds this year (see the family portrait). Puntarelle Galantina, the one with the weirdo, swollen coral-like stalk is used for a traditional Roman winter salad, and I grew it for SPQR, a restaurant in San Francisco that has a Roman inspired menu. I also grew another dandelion variety that is also sometimes known as “puntarelle,” the Catalogna Frastigliata, which has the thick, white stems to the leaf, but is otherwise “normal.” I’m told that it is customary in Rome to cut the stems into slivers for the traditional Roman puntarelle salad described below. Julia and I have “done in Watsonville what the Romans do at home” by using a funny looking Roman “knife” used to slice the slender puntarelle leaves that a friend picked up for us in a Roman flea market. (See photo) Can you imagine an America where enough people eat dandelion salad to support flea market vendors that specialize in the appropriate tools? The green part of the Frastigliata leaves can be used as a cooking green, just like the regular “supermarket” dandelion that we see most often in the United States.
The third dandelion that I grew for the “family portrait” is a leafy form of dandy with leaves that entirely lack the toothy edges that gave the plant its common name in the first place. Variety is the spice of life, and here are many other forms of dandelion out there, including a red-stemmed form from Greece that is becoming popular here now because it is colorful and looks nice on a produce rack. The Greek dandelion is pretty, and it tastes just as good as the other forms. To me, all dandelions taste like spring.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Dandelion Recipes
1 head puntarelle: cut the white part into thin strips then plunge into ice water. They should curl up a bit. Leave them in the water while you make the dressing:
Mix together: (I use a small blender jar for this)
2-3 stalks green garlic or 2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry
Large pinch of coarse kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Dress the puntarelle curly sticks.