Dandy idea: using dandelions in soup

Produce: The weeds with the familiar serrated `toothy' pattern on the leaves can be cooked, and enjoyed, like any other bitter green.

April 25, 2001|By Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Remember when Euell Gibbons made the Johnny Carson show just by claiming, har-har, that dandelions were edible? What a goof he was!

Well, guess what? My local supermarket had big stacks of dandelion greens in stock all winter. Truly, nothing is too weird to show up in the American produce department these days.

When I started cooking - shortly after the introduction of gas stoves, it now seems - it was quite an event to be able to find red bell peppers. Each summer, I'd order a case from my friendly grocer, roast and peel them in one blazing backyard briquette orgy and then freeze them to last the rest of the year.

Just this year - and not including farmers' markets - I have seen cavolo nero (a kind of Tuscan kale), fresh black-eyed peas, lotus root, puntarella (a deliciously bitter vegetable, something like celery), pummelos, Jerusalem artichokes and brussels sprouts on the stalk. Oh yes, we've had red bell peppers, too - completely out of season.

My local market has always carried a good assortment of greens: kale, collard, mustard, Texas mustard (paradoxically, it's somewhat frillier and more delicate). But this winter, dandelions joined the mix.

They look just like the ones you find in your yard, provided you have very rich soil and haven't mowed since, say, the Carter administration. The leaves are roughly eight to 10 inches long, and slender, with the familiar sharply serrated "toothy" pattern on the leaves (our word dandelion comes from dent de lion, French for tooth of the lion). They're a dark, vivid green and seem to hold up remarkably well in storage. I have yet to see wilted tops. I've learned to check the bottoms of the stems - that's where they seem to begin to fall apart.

I cook them the same way I cook any other bitter green. They're best either with big, forceful flavors, like garlic or anchovies, or played against bland things, like pasta or toasted bread bruschetta. Or with a bean soup.

The important thing to remember when cooking bean soup (or any other kind of dried-bean-based recipe, for that matter) is to take your time. Here's why: A bean is essentially a big collection of starch granules wrapped in cellulose skin. As the water heats, it softens and expands the starch granules, which in turn allows the water to penetrate more deeply into the bean, softening it further. This process has to go very slowly for the starch granules to soften evenly. If cooked too quickly, or overcooked, the beans will break apart.

So start with cold water and never let the temperature get much past a simmer. It's easiest to do this in the oven, where the heat is easier to moderate than on top of the stove.

White-Bean-and-Ham Soup With Dandelion Greens

Serves 6 to 8

1 pound ham, cut in bite-size pieces

2 carrots, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 pound Great Northern beans, rinsed and broken pieces picked out

8 cups water

salt

2 bay leaves

1 bunch dandelion greens, tough parts of stems discarded

freshly ground pepper

Active work time is 30 minutes, and total preparation time is 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the ham in a large, heavy oven-proof soup pot over medium heat. Add the carrots, cover and cook 5 minutes. Add the onion, cover and cook until soft, stirring several times so they don't stick to the bottom, about 10 more minutes. Add the beans, water, 1 teaspoon salt and bay leaves; cover and bake until the beans are quite tender, about 2 hours.

Chop dandelion greens, remove soup pot from oven and stir in greens. Replace the cover and set aside, off heat, until the greens have softened, about 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaves. Season to taste with pepper and salt, though the latter probably won't be necessary because of the ham.

Per serving: 236 calories; 1,069 milligrams sodium; 30 milligrams cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 22 grams carbohydrate; 17 grams protein; 6.82 grams fiber

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