It’s the perfect time to forage for dandelions, AKA cicoria in Italian. After the past week of warm temperatures and light spring rain, they’re popping up everywhere. Don’t wait though. Before you know it, their yellow flowers will blanket the hillsides, a sure sign that the small window for optimal dandelion harvesting has closed.
If you like old school food traditions, it doesn’t get any older than foraging. Foraging in the wild is what sustained life since the dawn of time. Even as agricultural societies developed, wild harvested food remained an important part of the diet. After all, if you had to survive by your own hands, what you grew in the garden and what grew in the wild were all the same. Food was food no matter where you found it.
Foraging remains a common practice in Italy, and Italians take their foraging seriously. Last August, when I was visiting my friend Gianna in the town of Roccasecca in Lazio, we went looking for blackberries in the mountains behind the village. Her basket was filling much faster than mine and I felt a bit pressured to pick up the pace and stop popping the plump little berries into my mouth every few minutes.
The timing of forging forays in Italy is often marked by special days on the calendar. During a previous visit that fell during the feast of San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist) on June 24th, Gianna and I and many of the woman in the village headed to various parts of the surrounding mountainsides to find the unripe walnuts that would be used to make nocino, a liqueur made by steeping the green husks in grain alcohol. Over the years I’ve seen Italians forage for wild asparagus, anise seed, truffles, snails and all sorts of nuts and fruits.
When the immigrants arrived in America and saw the abundance of dandelions, they weren’t going to let all that free food go to waste. Dandelion hunting became a rite of spring and fresh dandelion salads graced the tables of many immigrant families. My family ate its share of dandelion greens, both raw and cooked. When Easter fell late in the spring, my grandmother’s pizza stuffed with the cooked greens was my favorite among the many pizzas she made on Easter Saturday.
With such positive memories associated with dandelions, I’ve always found it difficult to believe that they are as evil as the advertisements for herbicides try to convince us they are. A story that a gentleman shared with me after a program I did last month on foraging deepened my respect for what many consider just “weeds.” It’s a wonderful story about how family traditions and dandelions helped prisoners of war survive their confinement. Click here to read the story.
Dandelions are rich in vitamins A, C and D as well as iron, potassium and zinc. The taproot grows so deeply that the plant is able to take up nutrients to which other plants don’t have access. Dandelions have been used medicinally for various ailments. Mr. Ciccone says they’re good for lowering blood pressure and my grandmother used to say they “clean the blood”. Mr. Ciccone is 92 and my grandmother lived well into her 90’s, so I tend to trust their medical advice.
Italians love their greens and although all parts of the dandelion are edible, I’ve only known Italians to eat the leaves. They are best picked when they are young and tender, but big enough to make it worth your time. If the plants have already flowered, the leaves will be tough and bitter.
Mid-April to early-May is the prime time for dandelion picking in the northeast. They grow just about everywhere, but make sure you only harvest them from places you are certain are free from pesticides and haven’t been frequented by pets. You might want to make note of good harvesting locations for next year by watching which areas are awash in yellow later this season.
To harvest, gather the leaves together with one hand and with the other, dig the point of a knife into the root just below the surface of the ground and slice off. The whole head should come out in one piece like a little head of lettuce. You can shake off any grass and other debris, then cut off at the base to separate the leaves.
When you get them home, rinse the leaves well. I use the basket of a salad spinner, then I fill the spinner with water to soak the leaves for a few minutes, swish them around a little, then drain. Fill again with water and swish until you see no signs of dirt and the water is clear, then spin. Now they’re ready to use.
If the dandelions are picked when they are young and tender enough, you can eat them raw in a salad. You can also sauté in a little olive oil and garlic. If they are a little older, you may want to boil them for 5 minutes or so, then drain and rinse in cold water to remove some of the bitterness.
Dandelions can be cooked and then stored for several days in the refrigerator. Just make sure you drain them well, then squeeze out any excess water. You can freeze them in a plastic freezer bag. The dandelion, prosciutto and gorgonzola pie in the photo is an old time recipe made simple by cousin Maria DiCello from Nicastro, in Calabria. (See recipe at bottom of post.)
There is a version of the dandelion that Italians grow in their gardens that they also call cicoria. What the Italian Americans found here and called cicoria is actually called in Italian, Dente di Leone, teeth of the lion. They are both in the chicory family hence the Italian name cicoria (pronounced: chik COR e a). My grandfather planted a bed over thirty years ago and we are still harvesting it today. Below, my father is holding a bag of last year’s abundant crop. If left to mature, it self-seeds and also comes back from root growth. This kind of cicoria needs to be boiled to remove the bitterness and soften the leaves. Here is some of Tommasina’s harvest that I found on her back porch.
Dandelion season won’t last long, so grab a grocery bag and a sharp knife and get out there and make your grandparents proud!
In the fall, we’ll hear from Michele Vaccaro about how to forage for Sheep’s head mushrooms.
Dandelion, Gorgonzola and Prosciutto Pie
2 sheets frozen puff pastry dough, trimmed in equal size circles
3 cups fresh, tender dandelion greens
1 cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese
5 pieces thinly sliced prosciutto
On a greased cookie sheet, lay a sheet of puff pastry flat, spread the gorgonzola cheese, sliced prosciutto , and dandelion greens. Lay another sheet of puff pastry on top. Crimp the edges closed. Bake until golden brown and flaky, about 15 minutes
Recipe from: Maria DiCello, Nicastro, Pr. Catanzaro, Calabria, Italy