I haven't fallen off of the face of the earth, in case you were wondering.
I never go this long without dropping by to say hi, but the past couple of weeks were really busy. There were the Easter holidays with good friends visiting from overseas, two long holiday week ends to follow, kids home from school for way too long and major work deadlines plus a little trip.
Now we are back and I can't wait to tell you about a salad we had while we were away.
Crisp yet tender, very slightly bitter leaves interspersed with crunchy morsels of pancetta set off by a drizzle of syrupy, aged balsamic vinegar.
If you want to make this, the first thing to do is
head over to the market take a nice long walk with your family and some good friends. Somewhere like here.
(I'm guessing you could probably find these greens in some markets, but I have personally never come across them in Milan).
Stride down paths, through fields and pastures and enjoy the nature that surrounds you, breathe in the fresh air, let the sun shine on your face and warm your skin. Be thankful for the beauty this planet has to offer and for good friends.
Run around, climb a tree, stop for a snack of mountain cheese and apples. If you are lucky, you might come across a deer antler, an eagle's feather, some roe deer tracks in the mud/snow and 'blueberries' according to my son (...they were actually a little something left behind by the roe deer).
And then, when you sit down to rest for a few minutes and drink some fresh spring water, you might come across something that looks like this.
Look closely, because this is what you are having for dinner.
This plant is none other than taraxacum officinale. Or, as it is vulgarly known, dandelion (from the French dent de lion, dente di leone in Italian, because of its leaves' resemblance to a lion's tooth), wild endive, chicory, milk witch, and other names such as blowball and wet-a-bed that refer to its parachute ball stage or the fact that it is extremely diuretic. All parts of this plant have been used since prehistoric times as food and as a medicinal source. It can be consumed raw, roasted or blanched and the roots and flowers are often employed in beverages such as root beer, dandelion wine and caffeine-free dandelion coffee or tea.
If you want to eat it raw as a salad, like we did, you will have to forage it at a very early stage, when the leaves are still tender and not bitter yet. You can only find them like this for a fleeting moment in the spring, just two or three weeks, so it is considered a true delicacy.
Now, city slicker that I am, I found the idea of foraging my own food extremely exhilarating. Digging up the roots tapped into some long-hidden genetic code. It made me feel like I was providing more for my family than getting up and going to the office every morning. It made me feel like I was a part of nature's cycle, like for once I wasn't exploiting or wasting what the planet has to offer but simply partaking in my allotted share. For a minute there I was considering kicking off my trekking boots and slipping on some Jesus sandals; of letting the hair grow out on my legs and under my armpits and hugging a tree. I think we all sort of went into a frenzy, with the kids and adults
with bad backs not carrying blades running around in a frenzy, screaming and pointing the dandelions out to the two of us with pocket knives. We dug and dug and dug and brought home so many bags that we ate the greens for three days straight and still couldn't finish them.
Here is how you know which ones to pick.
Start by looking for the smaller plants. The larger ones, like I mentioned above, are tougher and more bitter.
Insert the blade of the knife deep into the soil, so you don't cut off the roots. You want to dig up the whole plant, as the roots are edible and hold the leaves together.
Gently pull the leaves while digging and the whole plant, white roots and all, will ease out of the ground. This is what they should look like.
Once you are home, empty your booty into a bowl or onto the table for a first round of cleaning.
Next, use a small knife to clean each plant: you want to get rid of the soil on the outer layer of the roots.
Peel the outer layer by scraping it off with the knife, then cut the tip off.
When you are done, soak the greens for about a half hour and rinse them. Repeat this step three times or until they are clean. This will crisp up the leaves and rid them of residual dirt.
Once they are nice and clean, dry them a little and start heating up some thinly sliced pancetta in a frying pan.
You can use two different kinds if you are feeling extravagant.
When the pancetta has turned nice and crispy around the edges, pour it over the bowl of freshly washed dandelion greens.
Add a pinch of salt, some freshly ground pepper and a drizzle of your best balsamic vinegar (or you can omit the pancetta of course for a vegan meal).
Serve to a gaggle of hungry children and houseguests, preferably sitting around a warm tiled stove on benches in a wood paneled room.
And lastly, because we are what we eat, I should let you know that dandelions are rich in calcium, iron, antioxidants (vitamin A and C) and extremely good for detoxing and cleansening.