I remember living and working in Italy how prevalent food was, not only in the culture, but in nature. Edible plants seemed to be all around you. Herbs sprouted everywhere. Rosemary and sage grew by the side of the road, laurel trees (bay leaves) dotted peoples yards, and caper plants pushed through brick retaining walls.
I was amazed that food was just growing in such a pervasive way. Upon returning to America I was bummed. How could Italy's terrain be so rich with deliciousness and ours be so poor?
Over time, I've learned the answer doesn't lie in the terrain, but in the culture. In North America we have more than our fair share of edibles in the wild, there just aren't that many people that take advantage of it.
We have a wide array of mushrooms, and tout the infamous ramp. Our continent is plastered with maple trees, leaking delicious sap. Then there is the less commonly eaten but very tasty onion grass (pictured right); exploding everywhere right now.
And of course, the most ubiquitous, highly underrated, and one of the first on the spring scene: the dandelion leaf. Just about anywhere there is dirt, you can find some. The sharp bitterness is great in salads, or in a quick saute. They're chock full of antioxidants and vitamins. The best thing is, you can just go clip them yourselves.
Now don't just go plucking dandelions on the side of the road. If you're going to pick some for yourself, make sure you're harvesting from a reliably clean place (nowhere within NYC).
Look for young leaves, ideally before the flower has bloomed. These are more tender and mild, better in salads or used as an herb in a pesto or maybe a dandelion tabbouleh. If you have to crop the long tough leaves, you're probably going to need to cook them.
If you're in the mood to forage your yard, you'll probably discover more for snacking than you'd expect. When you find yourself with an unexpected crop, here's an idea of something you can whip up:
This pesto packs a spicy punch. It's great on toasted bread with cured meat, or tossed with pasta and a nice sausage.
2 Bunches Dandelion Greens
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 cup Parmesan Cheese, freshly grated
1/4 cup Pistachios, roasted
1 tbsp Honey
Juice and Zest of two lemons
Salt and Pepper to Taste
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a food processor and blend well.
Note: If you find yourself with only the tougher leaves, you might need to blanch them for 10 seconds and bump up the honey in the recipe to cut the bitterness