Today’s recipe was a recurring star of quite a few springtime dinners at the old two-flat. There’s nothing particularly special about the salad, once you get past the idea that you’re dining on dandelions. No, for my generation of Bartolini, it’s not so much the recipe as the circumstances surrounding it that we recall somewhat fondly. This is especially true for Sis and I. You see, whereas most people see crocus and daffodils in bloom and think “Spring!”, a Bartolini sees these very same things and thinks, “Cicoria!” Well, maybe not so much now anymore but certainly back in the day.
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When the lawns started to green each Spring, the adults in the old two-flat became wild chicory and dandelion pickers. We kids, depending upon our age, also took part. When very young, Mom & Zia would take us to some parkland where we’d play as they “harvested” the tender, young dandelions growing about. A couple of years would pass and we would be considered old enough to join in on the fun. We were each given our own butter knife, shown how to cut the greens out of the ground, and taught to leave the area if “traces” of dog were spotted. So, off we proudly went, with knife in one hand and an Easter basket in the other. That’s right. Our Easter baskets were re-purposed each Spring and used to carry the harvest.
Now, Dad loved his cicoria & dandelions and Sis & I often went with him, spending Sunday mornings after Mass picking dandelions. We loved every minute of it — until we were around 8 or 9 years of age. It was about that age when we learned that not all kids spent Sunday mornings picking dandelions. In fact, we were the only ones to do so. Peer pressure being what it was, we began to balk at the idea of spending Sunday mornings picking weeds. Did that stop Dad? Not in the slightest, for Dad’s love of dandelions knew little of, nor cared about, peer pressure. If anything, Dad’s peers probably encouraged him to get out there and pick those greens. For Sis and I, it wasn’t so much that he picked the greens, it was when and where he chose to do it.
You see, the old two-flat was on the same block as the parish church and about a half mile from both was a freeway. Having attended an early morning Mass, Sis and I would jump into the back seat of the car and off we’d go with Dad as he ran errands and stopped for “un caffè” with friends or family. That first part of the ride was fraught with anxiety for Sis and I. If Dad turned left at the Church, we were fine. It’s when he turned right that we began to get nervous — and it grew worse as we approached the freeway. If he turned anywhere before the overpass, we breathed a sigh of relief and all was well. The same held true if we drove over and beyond the bridge. It was only when we heard his turn indicator as we drove on the overpass that we knew we were heading for the freeway and trouble! “Please, Dad, NO!” As soon as he made the left turn, Dad pulled the car onto the entrance ramp’s shoulder, no more than 10 feet from the corner. There, in full view of our fellow parishioners — and classmates — walking to-and-from Sunday Mass, Dad pulled out his penknife & paper bag and started picking weeds, while Sis and I, mortified, dove for cover in the back seat. How could he do this to us! Two forevers later, he’d return to the car and off we’d go to the park where the pickings would be better, or so Dad said. We didn’t care. We just wanted out of there!
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Looking back, and hindsight being what it is, I’m pretty sure that Dad stopped along that ramp for more than just some dandelion greens. To begin with, Dad was a practical joker and he probably stood outside of the car and laughed as Sis and I tried to hide ourselves in the back seat. And although at the time it seemed like an eternity, we were actually parked there for only a few minutes and Dad never returned with more than a few greens, if any. No, we always needed to go to the park afterward and, suddenly, Sis and I were more than happy to accompany and even help him, proving there’d be no need to ever stop on that ramp again. As a result, we had all the greens Dad needed in no time flat and soon we were on our way to our next stop.
See what I mean? In today’s vernacular, we got played!
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Preparing a Dandelion Salad
Although I’ve seen dandelion greens in produce markets, the leaves are very large and usually served cooked. We use are the tender new plants that begin to grow in early Spring. Look for dandelions in areas where there is little chance of fertilizer or weed killer having been used and as far away from dog “traffic” as possible. Open parkland is good, as are rural fields. Look for young plants. If it has a bloom, it’s likely too old and too large. Once you’ve found one suitable for harvesting, use your knife to sever the plant from its roots below ground level. Continue harvesting until you’ve enough for your needs. I normally pick enough for a minimum of 2 salads.
Once home, soak the greens in cold water. One by one, rinse under running water and trim away any off-color leaves and all of the (brown) root stem. There may be underdeveloped flower buds in the heart of the plant. I remove them; you may prefer otherwise. Depending on the size of each plant, you may wish to cut it in half or, by trimming off the very bottom of the plant, separate the individual leaves. Place trimmed greens in cold, fresh water and continue until all are cleaned and trimmed. Dry the greens and reserve enough for your salad. Wrap the rest in a paper towel, seal in a plastic bag, and refrigerate. The greens will stay fresh for a few days if stored properly.
The salad itself is really quite basic and you may wish to add more ingredients. Our insalata consists of dandelions, some sliced onion, chopped hard-boiled eggs, a dressing of oil & red wine vinegar, and seasoned with salt & pepper. That’s all there is to it and I believe that’s because the greens were special and only available for a few weeks every Spring. Keeping the salad simple ensured that the tender dandelions took center stage and their flavor wasn’t overpowered. Make yourself one of these insalate and you’ll find it a tasty little salad and, like asparagus, a great way to bring Spring to the dinner table.
And if you’ve children, you may wish to borrow a page from Dad’s parenting book. Keep an old butter knife and bag under the driver’s seat of your car. If the kids are “acting up” in the car, just drive by a favorite playground or practice field and announce that the dandelions look delicious and that “Everyone’s going pickin’!” I’m willing to bet that you’ll only need to get out of the car one time, if at all, especially if you wave to their friends as your drive up to the curb. Best of all, you’ll give them a great memory to recall when they reach — ahem — middle age.
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