From approximately grades three through five, I was an avid reader of Redwall, a series of books by Brian Jacques featuring mice, weasels, beavers, frogs, etc. in a kind of medieval world, mostly concerning warfare between the animals (the mice are the heroes) and quests of one sort or another. But though the quests and battles are the main focus of the books, every quest and every war has to end with a feast. And oh what feasts they were. The burgeoning foodie in me even made plans, at the tender age of nine, to make a Redwall cookbook (alas, someone beat me to it).
Back then, I simply thought the food sounded delicious. Now, looking back, I think those clever little mice may well have been the first locavores of children’s literature. The animals are, of course, vegetarian (for the most part); they also, being mice and frogs, etc, don’t have access to modern methods of refrigeration or shipping to produce dishes like Otters’ Shrimp n’ Hotroot Soup, Strawberry Summer Fizz, and Mole’s Favourite Deeper ‘n’ Ever Turnip ‘n’ Tater ‘n’ Beetroot Pie.
I can think of no item that feels more Redwallian than dandelion greens. A hearty and robust plant, dandelion greens still feel amusingly whimsical — after all, they’re basically weeds, the leaves of the ubiquitous flowers that also bring me back to my childhood, when I would pull any dandelion in sight so I could blow on it and make a wish. (Here is a helpful diagram of a dandelion’s anatomy, if you need a little refresher on what they look like.)
As it turns out, dandelions are good for a lot more than making wishes. The greens are like a more intense version of kale or collard greens, with a sharper (though not unpleasant) bitterness and also more bite and texture. If they are picked when they are very young (before the dandelion flowers), they are supposedly very tender and can be used in salads. The ones I got were on the tougher side, so I decided to give them the basic greens treatment and braise them. This could not have been easier; it was also extremely satisfying to watch the greens go from, well, green, to a deep, burnished purple. The final dish still has a bitter taste, but it’s a good bitter, a rich bitter, a bitter that cuts through other rich flavors and reminds you that you have the taste for bitterness not only to detect bad dishes, but because bitterness can be complex and beautiful in itself.
I ate these the first time with some chili my roommate had made, curried sauerkraut that I also bought at the co-op, a big hunk of cheese, and a piece of flatbread, all of which complemented each other wonderfully (bitterness cutting through the richness of the chili and the cheese, the acid of the sauerkraut bringing everything together). A few days later, I used the leftovers to make an absolutely fantastic sandwich: toasted wheat bread + farmer’s cheese (kind of like ricotta, which you could use as a substitute) + leftover dandelion greens (heated) + leftover sautéed oyster mushrooms (heated) + a fried egg (not pictured above because it obscured all the goodies inside the sandwich).
Next up, that Turnip ‘n’ Tater ‘n’ Beetroot Pie.
Dandelion Greens Braised in Red Wine with Bacon and Caramelized Onions
Makes 4 servings, as a side
– 1 bunch dandelion greens, rinsed, chopped roughly into one inch segments
– 1 onion, quartered and then sliced
– 2 strips bacon, chopped (that’s how much I had on hand, you could easily use more)
– 1 cup red wine (preferably some that you have leftover – mine was probably several weeks old – or the first cup of a new bottle, to drink with the finished product)
– kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Cook bacon. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
- Cook onion in bacon fat.
- When onion is beginning to brown, add greens.
- When greens are slightly wilted, add wine.
- Add lots of salt and pepper, to taste.
- Cook until wine is almost entirely reduced. Add the bacon. Cook until the wine is entirely reduced, and is the consistency of a glaze.
- Adjust seasoning and serve. Reheats beautifully.