Dandy Greens to Me
By Shi Li
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page F01
The heat of May has turned my lawn bright green, and with it the yellow flowers of the dandelions. Some people might reach for chemicals to squelch these "weeds" in their infancy. But I see dandelions as a generous gift spring brings me to enjoy -- on my plate.
Growing up in Beijing, I heard about people eating dandelions (ku cai in Chinese, meaning "bitter vegetable") in the countryside but never had the chance to taste them in my parents' home. In the 1960s, my father was a railroad architect and had to live in tents in remote and barren areas to dig the tunnels or build bridges. Maybe it was the severe living conditions he experienced, or the hepatitis that made him unable to work for 11 years, but Father prevented his children from eating anything picked from the fields. Store-bought vegetables had to be washed and disinfected in an iodine solution before we could eat them raw. Either that or they would be cooked to death trying to guarantee they were free of bacteria and germs.
My relationship with dandelions first started as a college student in search of free food. Living in a dorm, with a college cafeteria menu short on protein or fresh vegetables, and with limited cash on hand, I constantly struggled with hunger.
Some of my roommates were from the southern provinces in China, where dandelions are appreciated as a rite of spring. One afternoon, we all went on a campus dandelion hunt. When our harvest was piled up on a desk, it covered a surface about 2-by-3 feet and was about a foot tall. That evening, with only a large pot and an illicit hot plate, we boiled down the washed pile into a big green wad. We soaked the boiled dandelions in a few changes of cold water and squeezed out the excess each time to reduce the bitterness.
Given our lack of cooking utensils and kitchen staples, how could we turn the greens into a delicious meal? Luckily, Ping, the girl from Sichuan province, brought out a big jar of browned ground pork with fermented broad bean paste. It was from her mother's kitchen in Chengdu, a city in Sichuan province known for its heavy hand with spices. There was a thick layer of lard on top, and the intense smell of Sichuan spice screamed "match" to our dandelions. We emptied the jar into our cooked dandelions, with all the lard melting on the green, giving it glossy sheen. That night, the seven of us devoured the concoction with leftover rice and felt like we were in heaven.
When I moved to the Washington area, my stay at a group house in Bethesda provided another rendezvous with dandelions. The Iranian landlord was a bachelor who went to his mother's house weekly, bringing back home-cooked food in plastic containers. One spring afternoon, he offered to let us taste dandelion salad his mom had made from the harvest in our backyard. Blanched leaves and flowers were chopped up and mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. It is that simple and delicious.
Now, in my kitchen in Arlington, my fiance asks me, "Aren't dandelions bitter?" when I tell him what's for dinner. Well, trust me, that bitterness can be turned into a pleasant experience.
In China, most people practice the ancient Chinese herbal medicine, based on our daily diet. Bitterness is believed to help reduce internal heat, a term that can be translated into symptoms such as bad breath, indigestion, restlessness and constipation -- many of the things related to the stress of modern life. Dandelions are just one of the many bitter things we eat to help our body to adjust and heal. (When dandelions are not in season, I battle the attack of internal heat by cooking stir-fried bitter gourd with black bean sauce, or I make myself a cup of tea brewed with the bitter inner sprout of lotus seeds with honey. As an added benefit, my internal heat level is dramatically reduced. Trust me; I am a much happier person now.)
For salads, I have used both raw and parboiled dandelion leaves. I've also used the leaves in a stir- fry with broad bean sauce, baked them into a frittata with pancetta and eggs and made them into filling for pot stickers.
Proper cooking procedures such as parboiling can reduce the bitterness, leaving the unique taste of dandelion. Boil the leaves in large pot of water for two minutes, then drain them and soak them in a couple of changes of cold water, squeezing out the water each time.
You can also mask the bitterness of raw leaves with strong flavors such as vinegar, mustard or chili oil to make the taste multilayered and more complex. The two salad dressings below are interchangeable, and other greens can be used as well.
Dandelion Salad With Citrus Mustard Dressing
Use the tender leaves in the center of the plant, as they are not as bitter and tough as the older leaves. The sweet but tangy vinaigrette is a perfect balance for the bitterness.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company