- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dandelions are incredible. There, I’ve said it. I’m proud that they are part of my garden and my diet.

Thousands, maybe millions of dollars are spent each year in an effort to eradicate this so-called weed, but dandelions actually are among the world’s great plants in terms of nutrition. They are an excellent source of antioxidants and beta carotene.

They also are high in potassium, iron, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium and are loaded with vitamins A, C and E. Want to know another secret? They taste good.

When I tell people I love dandelions, the reactions are mixed. Some look at me in disbelief, given my reputation as a devoted gardener. Others understand immediately, usually because of experiences with older relatives who added the tender greens to salads, sauteed them with garlic or used them to make wine. Often the understanding crowd asks me when to pick dandelions and how to use them. If Grandma served them, they must be good. Right?

Even if you can’t stand the sight of dandelions on your lawn, there are ways to deal with them other than dousing your yard with broadleaf herbicide. The perfect golf-course lawn easily can be achieved organically, without endangering yourself, your family, your neighbors or the environment.

There’s an organic product called corn gluten meal that’s applied in the spring when the forsythia blooms. It won’t help you get rid of established perennial weeds, but it will stop any weed seeds from sprouting. After two years of spring and fall use, corn gluten is more than 90 percent effective in combating weeds. It’s great for dandelions and crab grass.

I actually cultivate dandelions in my vegetable garden, along the edges of the raised beds. That’s one of the tricks to getting great-tasting dandelions: growing them in good soil. You can transplant them from your yard to the sides of the nutritious garden soil. Varieties of seed even are being sold through catalogs, such as the one published by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com).

Imagine the look the neighbors will give you when they see you transplanting fresh dandelion seedlings into your garden. If you are searching for the leaves in someone else’s yard, be sure to select an area that has not been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides.

It’s also imperative to harvest the greens before the flower buds appear. Once the little bud emerges in the center of the plant, the leaves become bitter.

If dandelions have started to flower already, cut them back and harvest what grows back. It won’t be as good as the early harvest, but it will be close.

I like to let them complete their flowering cycle, then cut the plant back to the ground, harvesting what returns during the remainder of the season. The mild winter in the east allows me a long harvest of the leaves, well into winter.

One great treat at the end of the season is beet greens and dandelion greens cooked simply in butter, garlic and salt.

I often make a garlic paste for this purpose by taking a tablespoon or two of course sea salt and chopping it on a cutting board with garlic cloves.

Dandelions are naturally bitter, so it’s a good idea to cook them with something sweet. They mix well with tomato sauce and with olive oil, garlic, eggs and cheese. Balsamic vinegar, which has a sweet undertone, also tames the bitterness of dandelion leaves.

Dandelions are good for you; they taste great; and there’s nothing easier to grow. Give them a try, and you may find yourself hooked — as I am — on this wonderful treat from the garden, or maybe the lawn.

For more information about using dandelions and other “weeds” for cooking, visit the self-proclaimed “king of dandelions,” Peter Gail, at www.edibleweeds.com.

As a judge at the annual Dandelion Festival Cook-Off at Breitenbach Winery in Dover, Ohio, I have seen the wide variety of dishes that can be created with dandelions. For more information about the Dandelion Festival, held the first weekend of May at Breitenbach’s, go to www.breitenbachwine.com/fes_fr.htm.

Here are two recipes that were Dandelion Festival winners, plus one of my own.

Dandelion-stuffed avocados

SALAD:

4 large avocados

Non-stick cooking spray

1½ cups chicken breast, cut in bite-size pieces

2 cups dandelion greens, chopped

4 cups Italian-mix mixed greens

1/4 cup onion, finely chopped

1 cup canned, drained mandarin oranges

½ cup dried cherries

½ cup feta

DRESSING:

1/3 cup white wine vinegar

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup olive oil

Salt and coarsely ground pepper

1 star fruit, thinly sliced for garnish, optional

Cut avocados in half and scoop out the inside, leaving a 1/4-inch-thick layer of avocado inside the shell. Reserve scooped out avocado. Spray a skillet with cooking spray and fry chicken until done.

Cut reserved avocado in chunks. Put avocado chunks, cooked chicken, chopped dandelion greens, mixed greens, onion, mandarin oranges, dried cherries and feta in a large mixing bowl and toss.

To make dressing, whisk together white wine vinegar, sugar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Add to salad mixture in bowl and toss. Then mound into avocado shells and serve. Garnish with star fruit slices, if desired.

Makes 8 dandelion salads.

Dandelion artichoke lasagna

2 pounds dandelion greens

Water

1/4 cup chopped onion

½ cup melted butter, divided

1 cup ricotta cheese

1 10-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and halved

2½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

1/4 cup flour

Salt and pepper

2 cups milk

8 no-cook or pre-cooked lasagna noodles

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cook dandelion greens for a couple of minutes in unsalted water until tender. Drain and chop. Saute onion in 1 tablespoon butter until lightly browned; set aside. Combine cooked dandelion greens, ricotta cheese, artichoke hearts and 2 cups mozzarella in a bowl and mix well. Set aside.

Blend remaining butter, flour, salt and pepper to taste and milk in saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook until white sauce thickens, stirring frequently so it doesn’t brown.

In a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, spread half of white sauce evenly over bottom of pan. Layer with one third of dandelion mixture, half of noodles and remaining white sauce. Continue filling pan with layers and top with remaining ½ cup mozzarella and ½ cup Parmesan cheese.

Bake, covered loosely with foil, in preheated 375-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until heated through and cheeses are bubbling.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Easy dandelion pizza

This recipe is an homage to Peter Gail, the self-proclaimed king of dandelions.

DOUGH:

2½ to 3 cups flour, divided

1 tablespoon sugar

1 package (1/4-ounce) yeast

1½ teaspoon salt

Water

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing pan

Pizza sauce

3/4 to 1 cup raw chopped dandelion leaves

Grated cheese of choice, optional

To make the dough, I just add flour, sugar, yeast, salt, 1 cup warm water and 2 tablespoons olive oil to my bread machine and set it on the dough setting. Here’s another way: In a large bowl, combine 1 cup flour, sugar, yeast and salt and blend well.

Gradually add 1 cup very warm (but not hot) water and 2 tablespoons oil to flour mixture. Blend at low speed until moistened and then beat 2 minutes at medium speed, occasionally scraping sides of bowl. By hand, stir in additional 1 to 1½ cups flour until dough pulls away from sides of bowl.

On a floured surface, knead dough for about 10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic.

Cover bowl with plastic and let sit for 10 minutes in a warm place. Divide dough into 4 equal pieces. These will be the pizzas. Place dough, a piece at a time, on a lightly greased pizza pan and gently spread it flat with your fingers to about 8 inches.

Pinch the edges to hold the sauce. Ladle sauce onto dough. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup dandelion leaves. (If you discover a love for dandelions, a cup would not be out of the question.)

Sprinkle with a little cheese, if desired. Bake pizza in preheated 450-degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until crust is golden or cooked to your liking.

Makes 8 to 10 servings as an appetizer or 4 servings as an entree.


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