Spring always brings back fond memories of my childhood, particularly the search for dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) greens in the yard. An annual tradition, my family would fan out across the lawn, paper sacks in hand, and pick tender, young dandelion leaves. After careful washing, the greens would be placed in a large bowl and wilted with a combination of hot bacon grease, onions, vinegar and sugar. Sliced, boiled eggs topped the dish and added color, flavor, and texture to the greens.
Both of my parents were raised during the Great Depression, a time when money and food were in short supply. Grocery stores (then called general stores for the variety of food and non-food items they contained) didn’t sell fresh lettuce, citrus fruits or other vegetables transported from southern climes or other countries. Thus, after a long winter, people yearned for something fresh and green to eat, free for the picking. While my parents have long since passed, I carry on the tradition of cooking up a “mess” of these delectable greens with my husband who, incidentally, picked greens as a youngster with his grandmother.
A couple of pointers should you venture into your backyard to forage for dandelions. Pick an area to explore that is free from herbicides and dogs/pets. Make sure you thoroughly rinse the greens, removing any stray blades of grass or roots that might have hitched a ride in your bag. Most importantly, do not pick any leaves from plants that display a flower or flower bud, as these leaves will be quite bitter.
A generalized recipe follows: Pick about half a plastic grocery sack of greens and rinse, set aside. Fry 0.3 pounds of bacon (cut crosswise). When the bacon is nearing completion (crispy), add a handful of diced onions. In a bowl, pour 0.5 cups of white sugar. Add enough cider vinegar to just cover the sugar. Add water to the mixture to bring the final volume to one cup.
Carefully add the contents to the pan of bacon (watch for splattering). Bring the mixture to a boil, pour over the greens in a large bowl, and gently toss. Top the dish with sliced, hardboiled eggs and bon appétit! For those that prefer lighter fare, olive oil can be substituted for the bacon, or the greens can be eaten raw with a light vinaigrette dressing. Raw greens tend to be a bit tough in terms of texture. Search the internet for more recipes or tips on identifying dandelions.
Picking dandelion greens reminds me of another favorite springtime foray – picking ramps. Ramps (Allium tricoccum), also known as wild leeks, are close-cousins to onions and garlic. Their beautiful green, strap-like leaves stand out in fertile woodlots in the spring (since other spring wildflowers are still small in size).
A ramp upper stem is burgundy in color, descending to a white bulb underground. Ramps are slow to spread, but once established, form large patches. I’ve observed some patches that are bigger than my living room in size, with hundreds of plants. Search the internet for tips on identifying ramps. Ramps can be confused with some woodland lily species or lily-of-the-valley, which can be poisonous. A ramp will smell like onions or garlic (versus a lily, which does not).
Flavor profiles for ramps are similar to green onions, but with more subtle, garlic-like flavor. Ramps recently found a place on fine-dining menus, as chefs discovered their unique flavor. Ramps are common in southeastern Ohio and Appalachia, where, like the dandelion, they afforded an early, welcomed vegetable in the springtime. Appalachian peoples sought out the plant as a “spring tonic” to cleanse the body. And be warned — a day after consuming the bulbs may bring a certain bodily “aroma.” Their popularity remains high in the Appalachian region, where ramp festivals abound. So, add a ramp festival to your bucket list — you won’t be disappointed!
Hubby and I enjoy steaming or sautéing ramps. Carefully wash the plant and cut off the roots, retaining the bulb (like you would a green onion) and cook until tender. Grilled ramps are excellent, too.
Baste the ramps in a vinaigrette or seasoned oil. Since the leaves will dry out quickly on a grill, either spritz them with water as needed or place the leaves over an unheated portion of the grill (to prevent charring). Finally, salt and pepper the ramps to taste.
With many activities curtailed during this time, a walk around your yard or woodlot with your family can yield flavorful, culinary delights, a chance to breathe fresh air, and a cure for cabin fever. If you’re not fortunate to find these wild edibles on your land, it is guaranteed that other interesting marvels will be encountered – when you and your family take the time to visit the great outdoors and explore.
Kim Marshall is the communication specialist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.