Spring Lions

These are some toothsome weeds!

Dandelion Salad with Lardons

The salty richness of the lardons cuts through the crisp bitterness of the dandelion greens in this perfect spring salad. See the recipe for Dandelion Salad with Lardons »James Baigrie

The young guy who cuts my lawn thinks I'm nuts. Every spring I cordon off a different part of the greensward that surrounds my farmhouse in upstate New York, just to see what comes up (wild strawberries, morels, chicory, and mole hills are among the possibilities). And until the dandelion harvest is over, he's prohibited from mowing the front yard. Brandishing a dibble, and with a zeal for free food inherited from a long line of foragers, I scour the grass for clusters of tiny spiked leaves, uprooting the plants before their yellow heads start to spangle the turf (once dandelions bloom, they're too bitter).

The French call the dandelion dent-de-lion—''lion's tooth'', a reference to its notched leaves—and also, less poetically, pissenlit, or ''pissabed'', because its root is thought to be a diuretic. The effect doesn't seem to be induced by leaf-eating, though, and the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a good source of vitamins A and C and iron.

In the mid-1800s the plant could be found in America's humble kitchen gardens, especially in the Deep South, where it still pinch-hits for kale and collards. Unlike the larger, milder cultivated leaves sold in groceries, wild dandelion greens have real bite and require tempering. On Edisto Island, in South Carolina, my great-grandmother used to cook them down with a big chunk of fatback, a method that was probably inherited from the area's original Huguenot settlers—and not unlike the more modern French approach, with lardons (strips of slab bacon; see recipe at right). I also like to simply chop fresh dandelion greens and toss them with lemon, olive oil, and black pepper.

If you want to grow your own dandelions, propagation is a breeze. Finding a patch of sod that hasn't been treated with fertilizers or herbicides is tougher. I've chosen to suffer a certain amount of crabgrass in the yard—and when I want to start next season's crop, I just let the flowers mature to downy seed, make a wish (more greens, more greens), and blow.