The bane of lawn-proud homeowners, the tenacious dandelion resists all efforts to make it go away. Paradoxically, their rapid and stubborn growth is exactly why early settlers brought them to North America as a food crop. Their roots and blossoms are edible, but the plants' nutritious green leaves were especially valued. You'll find them in the produce section of modern supermarkets alongside the collards and kale, but you can also cook and eat the ones growing wild at your own home.
As a Salad Accent
Small, tender leaves plucked fresh from the field before they flower are the most delicate of dandelion greens and are mild enough to be enjoyed in a salad. The faintly bitter greens lend interest to a bowl of mixed lettuces, just as chicory, endive and radicchio do. Chopped or torn dandelion leaves also provide an emphatic accent in chicken, pasta or potato salads, complementing the dish's primary flavors and adding to the mixture's visual appeal. Fresh or dried fruit, toasted nuts and vinaigrettes with sweet and tart notes all complement dandelion greens in a salad.
If you're partial to sauteed spinach, fresh, tender dandelion greens make for an intriguing substitution. Cook them the same way, tearing or coarsely chopping the leaves into pieces the size of baby spinach. Saute them lightly in butter or olive oil with caramelized onions and fresh garlic for about five minutes, until just tender, then fold them into an omelet or serve them as a side dish. Vary their flavor and texture by adding raisins or currants, crumbled bacon or toasted nuts just before serving. Older, larger, stronger-flavored greens can also be sauteed but usually benefit from a few minutes' blanching in boiling water first.
A Southern-Style Mess of Greens
Traditional cookery in many regions of the country -- most notably the South -- includes numerous variations on the theme of boiled or slow-cooked greens. Whether you like yours cooked lusciously soft in the old-fashioned style or bright and tender-crisp, dandelion greens can simply be substituted for some or all of your usual favorites. Delicate young greens have a spinach-like texture, while large store-bought or older field-harvested greens should be treated like sturdier kale or collards. Simmer them with a pork hock or ham bone until tender and richly flavored or add them to a New England-style boiled dinner as a brightly colored alternative to the traditional cabbage.
In Prepared Dishes
You can also incorporate dandelion leaves into any number of common dishes that ordinarily rely on spinach or other greens. For example, lightly blanched dandelion greens can complement or replace spinach in your lasagna, or be combined with ricotta as a ravioli filling. Add chopped dandelion greens to your favorite quiche or incorporate them into the filling for your spinach pies. Use them to complement or replace kale and other greens in traditional soups such as Portuguese caldo verde or Tuscan ribollita, where their bold flavor is mellowed and rounded by the soup's other ingredients.
A Quick Warning
Supermarket dandelion greens are as safe as any other food crop, but exercise care when harvesting from the field. Dandelions are often sprayed with highly toxic herbicides, so you should only eat wild-harvested greens if you know for certain they haven't been sprayed.