I admit it, I’m a sucker for something “new” in the seed catalogs. I say “new” because sometimes an offering has been around for a while, but it didn’t catch my eye at the time, or I wasn’t interested right then. Last winter, while absorbing the details of one of my favorite catalogs, Territorial Seed Company, I noticed a listing: “Italian Dandelion: Italiko Rossa (OP) 65 days. A colorful twist on this super performing green. Deep, maroon-red stems set off the forest green leaves for a spicy, delightful addition to your mixed green salads. Upright heads keep the 10-12″ leaves nice and clean.”
Territorial’s photos aren’t the glossy, drool-over kind, but even the small square shown was enough to catch my attention. Deep green, deeply toothed lengthy leaves with dark, dark burgundy stems and veining presented a glamorous version of the common weed. Now, I should mention here that I am a lover of dandelion greens in salads, wilted with just a bit of bacon and/or onion, or wilted a bit more with the addition of diced boiled potatoes and hard boiled eggs to the bacon and onion. I grew up eating dandelion greens, and later added butter-fried dandelion blossoms (dipped in beaten egg and then cracker crumbs before frying) to our spring menu.
So, feeling a bit foolish at ordering a “weed,” and slightly more idiotic at actually planting dandelion, when at that time there were thousands flourishing just outside the potager’s fence, a small triangular bed was sown. Of course, they germinated quickly and just as fast reached a decent size. Besides the gorgeous burgundy stems, the obvious difference was their more upright growth, which was nice because they stayed cleaner. Having an abundance of spinach, various lettuces and other salad greens meant that they weren’t harvested often…a few leaves added to this salad or that. And because the leaves are long, 10-12″ it doesn’t take many to make a salad. They did keep their quality even through the hot weeks of summer, staying pretty, colorful, and bug-free. And then came the surprise! One of the plants decided to produce a flower stalk! I assumed it would be a typical, bright yellow puff-away dandelion bloom, but I was shocked to see an abundance of pale blue flowers. It’s not a dandelion, it’s a chicory!!! (Cichorium intybus) And still a weed, whose relatives grow along roadsides and waysides in Indiana and elsewhere despite being mowed, sprayed or whatever. But, as soon as I realized it was a chicory, my mind flew to the many lovely dishes I’ve had in Italy, especially “Fave e cicoria.” Already I hear you chuckling, you oft-time readers who know my dismal attempts to produce enough fava beans for a meal, and you are justified. Indiana weather is just not conducive to growing great fava beans (but I will keep trying!) However, the vision of “Fave e cicoria” kept niggling, and there was that beautiful chicory, just begging to be used. So I improvised, and while not exactly what I’ve had in Italy, it was pretty darn tasty and I’ll definitely make it again and again. In case you have chicory in your garden (or growing as a weed!) and want to try it, here’s my version: Put a kettle of lightly salted water on to boil. Wash a bunch (a large handful ) of chicory and cut off the bottom 2-3″ of “empty” stems (where there is no green leaf material. These were a bit chewy even after cooking, so eliminate them.) Add leaves to boiling water & boil three minutes. Drain and allow to cool a bit. Using kitchen shears, cut leaves randomly a few times to make more bite-sized pieces. Place in serving bowls.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet with 2 T. olive oil, saute 3/4 c. finely diced carrots; 1 stalk celery, finely diced; 1 medium onion, finely diced; and 2 cloves minced garlic. Add a bay leaf and cover with a lid so vegetables get very soft, but not browned. When all is softened, add 2 cans butter beans, drained. Return cover and cook until beans are thoroughly hot, adding a bit more olive oil if needed. Remove bay leaf and mash beans with a potato masher, or put in food processor to puree, if desired. Adjust for salt and pepper. Spoon beans over chicory leaves, drizzle with a good olive oil, and sprinkle with chili pepper. Serve with crusty bread. Enjoy!
I’ll definitely also keep growing Italian Dandelion. A quick search on the web indicates that it is an annual, although there were varying opinions. I’ll leave my plants to see if they winter over, but also plan to seed a small patch, just in case. At this time, in the heat of August, there aren’t as many options in the potager for salad greens. Lots of cabbages, and chard, but that’s about it until the recently planted lettuces and spinach provide some variety. If for nothing else, having a tasty salad green (delicious with roasted beets) available is worth the small space it requires.