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Weed Eaters: Enjoying Springtime Greens

My grandma paid me one cent a dandelion to rid her yard of the yellow-flowered weeds, and it never once occurred to me to eat them.

I was deep into adulthood before I learned that dandelions are a delicacy, not a pest. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, a weed is "a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."

Well, they've been discovered.

Ever since "seasonal" became "trendy," dandelions, ramps, fiddlehead ferns and sweet pea shoots have cropped up in produce aisles, farmers markets and on restaurant menus.

But foragers and farmers have long appreciated the culinary properties of what some may think of as weeds.

In West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, for example, whole festivals are built around the appearance of the ramp, or wild leek. Ramps grow in rich forest soil from Georgia to Canada and cross-country to the Midwest. You can forage for them yourself or benefit from the labors of others at farmers markets and specialty stores.

If you can't see ramps in the woods, you'll be able to smell them. They both smell and taste stronger than leeks or onions. After a few weeks, the leaves die and all that remains is a naked stalk that won't bloom until the middle of the summer.

People who tramp around the woods looking for ramps are the same people hunting for fiddlehead ferns, the most adorable of the spring greens. These tightly coiled fern fronds poke through the earth just after the snow melts. They look like the scroll at the top of a fiddle, hence the name.

Fiddleheads only stay curled up for about two weeks before opening into lovely, but inedible, ferns. For the best eating, fiddleheads should be a deep green, firm and no more than 1 ½ inches in diameter.

In her wonderful, useful book Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables (Harper & Row 1986), Elizabeth Schneider writes that Vermont and Maine are prime fiddlehead terrain. But the unfurled ferns, she writes, are found along rivers and streams as far south as Virginia, as far north as Newfoundland and west across half the country. They're available from early spring through early summer, depending on the region of the country.

And while others scoff, Southerners have long recognized the inner beauty of the dandelion. They stew the greens with pork and turn the flowers into wine.

Dandelions were cultivated in European gardens for centuries. The French found the affinity of dandelion greens to warm bacon, and the Italians sprinkled their cooked greens with a little hot pepper. Dandelions were intentionally brought to the New World for their uses as food and medicine.

Dandelions, of course, grow everywhere, but they also are cultivated, and markets usually carry the farm-raised version, which are less bitter than those in your front yard. Dandelion greens should be eaten in the early spring when they are the most tender.

The other spring green I've fallen for is the pea shoot. I first encountered the tendrils of the sweet pea plant at Chinese restaurants. Then I found the pretty, graceful vines at the farmers market. They are lovely in salads and, not surprisingly, taste like peas.

Because they're so tender, many spring greens can be thrown right into the salad bowl. I made a salad the other night with pea shoots, dandelion greens, baby arugula and watercress. I boiled a handful of fiddleheads, added them to the greens and dressed the whole thing with a light vinaigrette. It tasted like spring.

These greens appear at the same time baby and toddler vegetables, fava beans and asparagus come to market. What bounty.

Like beauty, spring greens are fleeting. You have to act fast or you'll miss their brief season. Then, the dandelion greens will be too bitter, the fiddlehead ferns will unfurl and the ramps will bloom. But for a few weeks, it can be springtime at every meal.

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Bonny Wolf
NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.