Urban Forager | Growing a Salad in Winter

Instead of throwing down weedkiller, why not dig up dandelions for next winter’s food?

Last year, I decided that instead of suffering through another winter without local greens, I would try my hand at forcing roots — an age-old practice that yields springy vegetables even in the middle of winter. The foraging guru Euell Gibbons forced pokeweed and dandelion roots in his cellar, documenting it in his 1962 book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” and I was curious to see if I could recreate it in an apartment in New York City.

In preparation for the long winter, I dug up dandelion roots last fall at the College of Staten Island, dreaming of the days when I’d be able to add young shoots to my pre-spring salads. (It’s best to dig roots before the first frost, and from places where no pesticides have been used.)

In the process of forcing, you have to first trick the bulb or root into thinking it’s winter (a refrigerator is often used), and later the roots are moved to a warm space, signaling spring. This allows plants to bloom in their off-season. Forcing roots is a lot like forcing flower bulbs — you can try it provided there’s space in the bottom of your refrigerator. Since I don’t have a cellar and space in the refrigerator is limited, I planted mine in a dirt-filled pot and kept it outside a friend’s doorstep on Staten Island for a month and a half. Edible shoots benefit from a few good hard frosts, and, of course, mine had several.

The year before, following Mr. Gibbon’s example, I had forced pokeweed roots (Phytolacca americana) — which, in maturity, is thoroughly toxic — growing in the darkened hallway of my apartment building. That tenacious plant’s young shoots were once popular in the South as poke salad or “salet.” The rather alien-looking sprouts were delicious, even twice-boiled (several changes of water are necessary to extract toxins). But I felt my mouth start to tingle as I ate them, so I put down my fork (and that project). (Many medical authorities consider all parts of Phytolacca americana poisonous, and I do not advise consuming it.)

A few weeks ago, I brought my potted dandelion roots home, setting them on the kitchen floor, where the warmth and a good watering would simulate “spring.” Thinking they might need some time to adjust, I decided against watering the pot right away, and promptly forgot about it as I engaged in a frenzy of cooking braises, resulting in a steamy kitchen. A week later, I noticed several toothy-looking, one-inch dandelion shoots, the color of young corn, sprouting out of the pot.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), a k a lion’s tooth, blowball, faceclock, is one of our most ubiquitous and identifiable weedy plants. Native to Eurasia, it was first brought over by European colonists and is the bane of many American gardeners and homeowners. But William Cobbett, author of the 19th-century classic “The American Gardener,” considered its springtime shoots “one of the very best of greens.” He called it “a sort of wild Endive.” (When Mr. Cobbett arrived on Long Island in 1817, lacking a tended garden, he noticed the wild dandelions growing underfoot. “I have always, since that time, looked at this weed with a more friendly eye,” he wrote.)

Dandelions — high in vitamins A, C and K and rich in calcium, iron and manganese — have a long culinary history in Europe as a salad green, leaf vegetable, jam, wine and even as a coffeelike beverage. Medicinally, the plant has been used as a diuretic, liver and kidney support, wart remover and respiratory aid.

But this little pot of Taraxacum officinale is destined for our next salad, where each young shoot tastes like summer. After that, when they’ve matured, they’ll be transformed into a bitter-greens pie. Until then, I’m happy to watch the little basal rosettes, which I used to squash with my shoe as a child, growing under the cold glare of the kitchen window.

Ava Chin is a professor of creative nonfiction and journalism at the College of Staten Island. The Urban Forager appears every other Saturday.

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