I grow dandelions, and not just in the lawn! I sow the seed in long rows in my vegetable garden because dandelions are the main ingredient in one of my favourite dishes – agria horta. That's Greek for 'wild greens', and Greece was where I first encountered this delicacy. A frequent visitor to the Mediterranean, I'd noticed, on several occasions, shepherds with small knives and baskets, combing the mountain slopes while their sheep and goats nibbled nearby. The men (I've never seen women doing this collecting) were gathering something and, at first, I thought it must be wild mushrooms. I later learned that the treasure they were after was dandelions. They harvest the plants by cutting the stems just under the surface of the soil. This keeps the entire rosette in tact. When they've collected enough to satisfy their wives' culinary requirements, they take the rest into town where chefs will happily pay a good price for them (agria horta being one of the more expensive items on local menus).
But the collecting doesn't stop there. It's too hot in the mountains of Greece for anything edible to grow in summer and, with horta in year-round demand, there's a thriving trade in dried dandelions. Step into the cottage of a shepherd in winter and you're bound to see strings of these 'weeds' drying above your head. As they lose their moisture, they shrivel and curl until (to me, anyway) they resemble tiny wizened octopus. It's these little dried morsels that are reconstituted as summer agria horta.
How do cooks make these bitter weeds so palatable? It's easy, especially if you like a 'bite' to your greens. The secret is to boil the plants in plenty of water, drain and then reboil. When I'm cooking dandelions, I do this two or three times which rids the horta of much of its bitterness. Then, after a final drain, the still-warm greens are doused in the best olive oil and lots of lemon juice, along with a big grind of black pepper and some salt. Yum! With a few wedges of crusty bread, a plate of feta cheese, and some olives on the side, you can't go wrong.
Lucky for us, King's Seeds now offer dandelion seed and, before you start sniggering and asking yourself why you'd bother buying them when you can go out onto your own lawn or down to the local park to do a bit of gathering, consider for a moment how many dogs may have also 'been' on the same patch before you (not to mention someone spraying the grass for weeds!)! I can also assure you that dandelions grown from commercial seeds have a lovely fleshiness to them that you won't find with the lawn variety. By feeding plants with liquid manure you'll also hurry the growth along which makes the plants especially tender and succulent. If you're a cut flower enthusiast, take note that the blooms on vege garden dandelions are really big, and look gorgeous in a vase!
If you haven't tried dandelion greens before, I encourage you to give them a go. And if you do like the interesting bitterness you encounter (similar to the bite in radicchio or chicory greens) think about incorporating dandelions into your soups, stews and spinach pies as well. If you're heading out in the countryside where you can guarantee the dogs and spray haven't preceded you, why not pop your vege knife and basket in the car! Dandelion hunting as much fun as picking mushrooms!