Dandelions are flowering wild plants that I have loved since childhood. My sister and I picked them and put the flowers in our hair, and blew the seeds into the wind on hot summer days, watching them float away to land elsewhere and make a new plant. And now I watch my sons do the same, and love it when they pick dandelions to bring to me as a present. However, my romantic ideas of dandelions don’t fit well with the common notion that the plant is a noxious weed needing removal with powerful chemicals sprayed all over a yard or other grassy area.
I prefer to think of it differently.
Dandelions are beneficial plants that have been used as garden companions, food, and medicine for centuries. The leaves can be cooked and eaten, the roots roasted and made into a chicory coffee or tea, and blossoms used to make wine. The flowers, which start blooming in spring, help attract bees to gardens and provide nectar and pollen. The plant also contains latex and experiments are in progress in Germany to extract the raw materials to make rubber for tires.
I don’t plan to start any latex extraction experiments at home, but in spring we do like to pick and eat the greens, which are loaded with vitamins A, C, and K, and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese. Dandelions are held in the ground by long taproots, which can make them difficult to fully remove from hard-packed dirt, but we’ve found they lift out of our raised garden beds very easily. We rinse everything off in a garden hod and then do a second washing in a bucket to make sure all the grit and dirt is gone, then separate the leaves from the roots and flowers. We spin them dry and store in an open produce bag in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Now for cooking. Dandelion greens tend to be bitter, and I do mean bitter, as in stronger than arugula, though to some extent that can be controlled. Pick leaves from small plants that haven’t yet flowered and plants that grow in cool shade. Hot sun exposure rapidly increases bitterness, so avoid those leaves for dinner. Boiling the leaves helps extract the bitterness, just boil slowly for about 5 minutes, then drain and press the leaves. Repeat if necessary to get the flavor you desire. And one cool trick that works: boil water in one of those fast-boiling electric tea kettles, pour it over the greens and let it sit for 5 minutes, then drain.
For me, the best way to enjoy the greens is to use them as a flavor layer with other greens such as spinach or kale. And I love the richness they add to the traditional Japanese spinach salad goma-ae, which is a favorite appetizer at many Japanese restaurants. The cooked and chilled spinach makes a good background for the dandelion greens, and the pungent flavor of the sesame oil, tamari soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar dressing blends it all very nicely.
You can use regular soy sauce if tamari is unavailable.
The salad can be made a day ahead.
Japanese Sesame Spinach Salad with Dandelion Greens (Goma-ae)
- 4 to 6-quart pot with lid
- small bowl
- mortar and pestle
- medium bowl with lid
- 2 bunches (approximately 1 pound/454 g each fresh spinach with stems, well-rinsed)
- 1 large handful dandelion greens (well-rinsed)
- 4 teaspoons gluten-free tamari soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon gluten-free unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 tablespoon mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
- 1/8 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon dark Asian sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds (+ 1 teaspoon, lightly toasted and cooled)
- Blanch the spinach leaves in boiling water for 3 minutes, and remove with a strainer. Drain thoroughly in a colander. In the spinach water, blanch the dandelion greens until the bitterness is gone, 3 minutes or more, and strain. Drain in the colander. Pile all of the greens on 2 layered paper towels, and roll the towel around the greens. Press and allow to rest about 5 minutes, then remove the greens and transfer to a bowl with a lid. Chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
- DRESSING: In a small bowl, whisk together the tamari, rice vinegar, mirin, sugar, sea salt, and sesame oil. Grind 2 tablespoons of the toasted sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle, then add to the dressing.
- Toss the spinach and dandelion greens with the dressing and transfer to a serving bowl. Sprinkle on the remaining whole sesame seeds, and serve.