Laurie Constantino, a local cookbook author, is one of those people you see stooped on the green slopes of city parks with her knife and grocery bag. She's out there because she knows something the rest of us probably don't. A lot of plants that we think are weeds are also good, nutrient-packed eating.
I follow Constantino's food website, which has a trove of interesting recipes for wild edible Alaska plants. (Cow parsnip ice cream, anyone?) I visited her at her home the Hillside this past week because I was curious about the scourge of my lawn: dandelions. I don't do pesticides (mainly out of laziness) and I can't beat them. I wondered: Could I eat them?
Constantino's answer: Oh yes. Then she offered to show me how to make pesto.
A little Internet research told me that dandelion greens have more than twice the vitamin A and vitamin C as spinach. I also read an article in The New York Times about how years of agriculture have bred the nutrients out of common supermarket foods but their wild relatives are way good for you. Crab apples have zillions of times more nutrients than Golden Delicious apples, for example. Wild purple potatoes are way better than Yukon Golds. Naturally, spinach kills iceberg lettuce in the antioxidant department. But dandelion greens crush spinach.
All that said, I was a little weirded out about the idea of putting lawn-mower bag contents in my mouth. All I could think about was the time as a kid I tasted the round circle of dandelion milk at the end of a flower stem. Bitter. Gluey. Yuck.
When photographer Marc Lester and I got to Constantino's house, a carpenter was outside finishing up a deck. Her house had just undergone a remodel that tore up the lawn. The ground was covered with dandelions. So our foraging trip didn't take us far.
Constantino grabbed a basket, a knife and a pair of rubber gloves to protect her hands in case of an accidental brush with cow parsnip. She's allergic to the raw stuff, like most of us, but eats the cooked stuff all the time.
The hardest part of foraging dandelions is finding clean plants that are in the right stage of development. (Also, this should go without saying, but if you aren't positively sure what you're picking is a dandelion green, don't eat it.)
The best greens don't yet have buds forming at the base of their leaves. You can still eat them once the buds are formed, if they are nestled down deep almost flat against the ground. But after that, the plants become too bitter.
To harvest the dandelion, she took the knife and slid it along the ground under the plant, severing the root. Then she cut off the bottom of the plant and tossed it before she put the leaves in her basket. Dirt is the enemy of a wild edibles foragers, she said.
"Make it easier for yourself," she said. "Clean them in the field."
Constantino has a caution for anyone thinking about harvesting wild plants: Only pick where you know there haven't been pesticides or other chemicals applied and in a spot that isn't popular with dogs.
"I don't like doing it along the roadways," she said. Road grit is a real pain.
She sliced off a small, tender leaf and handed it to me. I took a bite and chewed. It was bitter but not in a bad way, with only a mellow flavor of dandelion milk. She told me that the greens are great when made into a salad with a lemony garlic and anchovy dressing. She brought the salad once to a party with a lot of children. They were all squeamish until one of them tasted it and liked it. Then it was gone in minutes.
"(Dandelion greens) are really good if you give them a chance," she said.
She usually soaks everything she picks in a sink full of cold water mixed with a cup of white vinegar. After that, she whizzes off the extra moisture in the salad spinner. To store the greens, she lays them on a paper towel in a single layer, rolls up the towel, and slides it into a plastic bag. They keep well that way for a week, she said.
After we filled the basket, she invited us into her kitchen. She peeled four cloves of garlic, tossed them in the food processor and minced them. Then she added greens, cheese, oil, and salt and gave it a couple more pulses (she left out the nuts because I'm allergic, but you should add them). She doesn't like pesto too pulverized, she said.
I scribbled down a few other tips while I watched her cook:
Some people put lemon in basil pesto but dandelion greens turn an unappetizing color with the acid, she said. If you must have lemon, use a little zest but go easy.
You can combine dandelion with another green for pesto. She likes to throw in a half cup of parsley.
She uses spicy, good-quality Greek "Mythology" brand olive oil. You can only get that in Anchorage at Teddy's Tasty Meats, she said. If you want some, bring cash or check. Teddy's doesn't do plastic.
And, when toasting your nuts, especially pine nuts, don't you dare turn away from the pan. They go from toasted to blackened in a heartbeat.
When she was done, I took a taste. The flavor of the cheese and the nutty, spicy olive oil erased all the dandelion bitterness. It was delicious. My mind filled with ideas for it: smeared on homemade pizza, tossed with pasta, spooned in with some oil and vinegar for a salad dressing. You should try it. Here's the recipe:
- 3 cups packed clean dandelion greens, stems removed.
- 1/2 cup parsley
- 3 to 5 cloves garlic (depending on your love of garlic)
- 2 ounces Parmesan, Romano or other hard Italian cheese (a block about the size of an Altoid box), roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, walnuts, almonds or pumpkin seeds (optional)
- 1/2 cup good olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
In a food processor, mince the garlic well. Add the cheese. Pulse it a few times. Add other ingredients. Pulse a few more times until well combined. Store in a jar with a layer of olive oil over the top to prevent discoloration. Can be refrigerated for two weeks as long is there is oil on the top.