Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Case of the Mysterious Greens, Or, That's Not What I Smoked

"Dandelions!? These aren't dandelions..." I was looking at the leafy stems sticking out of the bag that Lon had just brought back from the Alemany Farmers Market. I shook my head.

"I know dandelions: I've eaten them. I've weeded them. I've smoked them. And I'm telling you, these are not dandelions."

"And I'm telling you that the woman who sold them to me said they were dandelions," Lon replied, as I continued to brush the bushy stalks from side to side. I examined the leaves, baffled that someone who knew food would identify and sell this plant as a dandelion, especially since it looked nothing like the jaggy-edged greens I have alternately loathed and loved over the years.

As a kid my dad drafted me every summer to do battle with dandelions in our backyard. The weed's ability to adapt to any set of circumstances - how the hell was it growing out of the sidewalk pavers? - made it a formidable pest and robbed me of many hours I could have spent playing with my friends in the nearby woods or swimming at our local public pool. I hated dandelions. But during the summer that I was 13 a certain "someone" convinced me that the leaves of the plant that I'd always viewed as a foe could actually prove to be kind of friendly. Quite friendly, in fact. If they were smoked. Or so I was told.

Well, several hours of dizziness, vomiting and tearful explanations to my parents later, the weed had returned to being just that again; a weed. As far as I was concerned the only good dandelion was one that had been yanked from its stronghold, blasted with Roundup and then left to die. By the time dandelion greens were served to me as a salad in a restaurant several years later, it was with a little trepidation - after all, I knew what smoking these things did to the body, what would happen if I ingested them - and a bit of vengeance, that I dug in. Instantly bitterness took hold of my taste buds. I looked up, astonished. I had to admit it. I'd just met a dandelion that I liked. A lot.

The sight of a small cluster of flowers snapped me out of this revelry. "Here! Look!" I pinched the buds from their stem and held them up for Lon to examine. "See these? These are not dandelion buds." I felt vindicated. "Knew it," I said to myself. I know food. I've written about food. I've eaten all over the world, I thought smugly. I knew these weren't dandelions. Pfft. No one was going to tell me anything about dandelions that I didn't already know.

And then, someone did.

"They look like they could be a variety of dandelion." It was a text from my friend Sam. When this whole debate started I snapped a pic of the greens and emailed it his way, asking for help in identifying the mysterious plant. I thought if anyone would know, he might. He owns Zannino's Catering in Baltimore, a business that was built on the family recipes of his Italian ancestors. And I remembered him distinctly talking one time about the dandelion greens his father used to pick. "Italians adore bitter the way Americans love sweet," his text continued. "Bite into a leaf. The taste should give you your answer."

So I did. But I didn't get my answer; where I tasted something slightly nutty, Lon tasted pepper.

The mystery continued. I'd also sent a pic to New York Times columnist and acquaintance John T. Edge. "Could they be dry land cress? Creasy greens?" his email reply asked. Good question. So I googled creasy greens, and then spent a good ten minutes searching the web and looking back and forth between the varieties pictured online and the leaves I held in my hand.

There wasn't a match. But at this point, it didn't matter. I'd already made up my mind that this strange new addition to my kitchen was going to be stir-fried that night and served alongside the Bo Kho I was making from my new copy of Andrea Nguyen's "Into The Vietnamese Kitchen" a recent purchase from Omnivore Books.

While we didn't have our answer, the wok did bring us a little closer to discovering the identity of the greens. Once cooked, their bitterness was released. The flavor was a nice compliment to the star anise and sweet tomato of the Bo Kho.

The point of this post? It's easy to forget that despite the access that most of us now have to an abundance of produce, not to mention restaurants featuring global cuisine, there are still discoveries to be made in our own kitchens. The ultimate enjoyment doesn't really come from the knowing, it comes from the tasting. And the sharing.

I wish I could tell you, definitively, what those greens were. The closest I've come to an answer is that they could be a variety of dandelion. Maybe? Really, though, it doesn't matter. The real joy of discovery wasn't in finding the answer on line but in discovering a new food that I liked. Looking back, I'm a little embarrassed by my hesitance and my need to know what this plant was before I ate it. Did it really make a difference? After all, this wasn't the first time I stuck something in my mouth without knowing what it was. Sometimes you just have to bite and enjoy. Search engines, be damned.

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