Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Dandelion as underrated as underfoot

The spring planting season has barely begun and already some growers in the southern part of the state have wrapped up their harvest of the first crop of the year: dandelion.

Commonly derided as a garden nuisance, dandelion takes a turn in the culinary spotlight each spring in Vineland, where for each of the past 35 years, dandelion fans have gathered to celebrate the versatility of the humble but healthful green. For this year’s annual Dandelion Dinner, sponsored by the Vineland Chamber of Commerce on March 29, Richard Spurlock, the executive chef at Merighi’s Savoy Inn in Vineland, crafted 10 dishes using dandelion from New Jersey, Florida and Texas. But strictly speaking, only the locally grown batch, supplied by Buster Petronglo & Son of Vineland, was made up of true, or spring, dandelion.

The leafy greens tagged “dandelion” that are found at market usually are chicory hybrids, such as the San Pasquale and Catalogna varieties. Also called cultivated dandelion, dandelion chicory, or summer dandelion, these greens, unlike true dandelion, grow upright instead of low to the ground, have longer leaves that can measure 12 to 14 inches, and bear tiny blue instead of yellow flowers. True dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is seeded in the fall, overwintered, and harvested in early spring before it flowers. The chicories, Cichorium intybus, are seeded at this time of year for harvest from June through frost. Sometimes growers will label them “pissenlit,” which is French for the old English name for the vegetable, “pissabed,” which speaks to its diuretic properties. The name dandelion, too, is from the French — “dent de lion,” which means “lion’s tooth,” and refers to the look of the plant’s serrated leaves.

True dandelion is hard to harvest because “it doesn’t get very big as far as the leaves are concerned,” noted Wes Kline, a vegetable specialist with the Rutgers Agricultural Extension of Cumberland County. Summer dandelion is easier to grow. “It’s an annual crop instead of an overwintered crop and the seed is much easier to get,” he said. “There are more people growing the cultivated than the true dandelion.”

Many, like Peter Scapellato of Scapellato Farms in Vineland, switched from cultivating the spring dandelion that his immigrant grandfather, Sebastiano Scapellato, had planted a half century ago, to summer dandelion as demand for the more traditional green dropped. “All the Italians, when they came from Italy, brought their ways with them, and that’s one of the things they brought,” said Scapellato.

From a business standpoint, however, dandelion offered only “a short window,” he noted — about a month before the plants start to flower and turn too bitter to eat. “The sales slowed on it. Who wants to take the time to clean it?” he added.

Indeed, part of the appeal of the summer dandelion is that its leaves don’t trap as much soil as its ground-hugging spring counterpart. Even so, of the 30 different vegetables Scapellato grows on his 350-acre farm, dandelion is toward the bottom of the list in popularity measured by volume, he said.

Prized since ancient times for its medicinal properties, dandelion — both spring and summer types — is exceptionally rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. And though often considered a weed, the dandelion is actually a vegetable, according to Peter Gail, an ethnobotanist who heads Goosefoot Acres, Inc., in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, which distributes DandyBlend, a coffee substitute made from roasted dandelion root, barley, rye, chicory and beets. “Eighty percent of what we call weeds are plants that were brought here as food and medicine from overseas,” he said.

Emerson defined a weed as “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” but according to Gail, “Actually it’s the opposite: A weed is a plant for which we once knew the use but we’ve forgotten it.”

He, however, has plenty of uses for dandelion, which he cultivates in raised beds beneath his homegrown tomato and other vegetable plants. “I have over 1,000 recipes for dandelion from 64 countries,” he said. He has collected them into two cookbooks, which he sells along with other dandelion products via a web site, www.dandyblend.com.

According to Spurlock, dandelion can be treated just like spinach in most dishes. The youngest, most tender spring dandelion are ideal in salads. “The old-school Italians will like to eat it on its own. I like to serve it with mixed greens,” he said.

More assertive tasting dandelion works well as a stuffing in pasta and even sausage. “The thing with dandelion is you need to make sure you take the bitterness away. Garlic and olive oil work wonderfully to mellow out the bitterness,” said Spurlock. As a side dish, dandelion can be adapted to many styles of cooking. “It’s underrated as far as that goes,” he said.