Lebanese style dandelion leaves
Before I begin this entry, I want to direct your attention to the ceramic bowl above which I made in December. This one is my pride and joy.
OK. Let’s start.
Talk to any real food lover out there and they will sing the praise of simple, honest, traditional food. One might be seduced by the luxury of foie gras, the aromatic intensity of truffles or mesmerising power of silky wagyu beef, but it’s easy to get something ethereal out of ingredients that are so good (and expensive) to start off with. But in my opinion, real ingenuity comes from creating flavour out of ingredients that are undervalued, humble, or even down right met with disdain. Having gone through several famines, my Lebanese ancestors have had to put their devious talents where their mouth is and derive their nutrition from the least likely of plants and cuts of meat. One example is akkoob (gundelia tournefortii, ????), a thorn that grows in the high mountains of Lebanon and in Syria and Jordan. This thorn is notoriously difficult and painful to harvest and its preparation is equally hazardous. But what you are left with, apart from green-hued bleeding fingers is a stem that works culinary wonders in stews, stir fries and with eggs. What drove someone to identify this wicked thorn as a potential source of food is beyond me. My guess is nothing short of extreme hunger.
Another such example of unlikely food is the dandelion (??????). In Australia, dandelion is mostly considered a lawn weed suitable only to feed guinea pigs, yet it is widely loved in Lebanon and is the main ingredient and namesake of the popular dish hindbeh. Dandelion gets its name from the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth, in reference to the serrated shape of the leaf. Dandelions might be commercially grown in Lebanon, but most families I know gather their supplies from the wild, or buy it from the forager. So while Lebanese children are picking the dandelion flowers and making a wish before blowing on the parachute-like seeds (the wish comes true if the seeds fly in the direction you chose earlier), the savvy, cost-conscience mothers are busy harvesting.
The dandelion could be mistaken for other weeds with similar but hairy/thorny leaves (ones whose name I do not know, so avoid hairy leaves please). The smooth dandelion leaf is best harvested in early spring if intended to be eaten raw in salads, as its bitter flavour has not fully developed. As the leaf matures, it grows larger, thicker and more bitter. This bitterness can be minimised by blanching or by washing thoroughly and then squeezing out the liquid. However, bitterness is not a bad thing, as most naturopaths will tell you. It is usually an indicator of a plant’s ability to detoxify the body and the liver (or that the plant is poisonous!). Dandelions are high in protein, naturally diuretic and anti-inflammatory and are rich in potassium and beta-carotene and many other highly beneficial minerals, which is why this humble plant has been very popular in herbal medicine.
This time of year sees a proliferation of dandelions in New South Wales, and since I am a lover of wild/foraged food, I did not want to miss the opportunity to feast on dandelions this year. A brief half hour walk down the road in Earlwood resulted in 400 grams of fresh dandelion leaf. Sure, the neighbours looked on suspiciously, the dogs barked madly and the joggers gazed in distrust. But don’t let that stop you. The sunshine and the buzz you get out of collecting your own food is alone worth it. But to make things even better, this is a recipe for hindbeh, our favourite way of cooking dandelion. The idea is to fry the leaf with garlic and onions in olive oil until it is almost dry, and then it would be ready to absorb the lemon juice you add. It is then topped with caramelized onions and eaten cold. To make mine a bit more of a proper meal, I added chickpeas, toasted pine nuts and a nice dollop of yoghurt on top. Such classic Lebanese flavours. It’s too cheap to be true.
NOTE: If dandelions are not available, you can substitute them with endive (available at supermarkets)
Hindbeh – Dandelion Recipe
Preparing the Dandelions
- When you pick the dandelions, make sure you don’t pick other weeds with them and be careful of insects such as spiders. You should find dandelions grown in lawns and on sidewalks.
- Chop the dandelions finely, wash thoroughly in several changes of water and drain. Wrap the leaves in a tea towel and twist the tea towel to drain all the excess water and bitterness.
- Taste a dandelion leaf. If it is not too bitter, then it should be good to cook. If it is (and by bitter, I mean BITTER), blanch the dandelions in boiling water and 1/2 a tsp of sodium bicarbonate for 3 to 5 minutes. It’s preferable not to blanch if you can handle the bitterness.
Cooking the Dandelions (Hindbeh)
500 g dandelion leaf, prepared as above (weighed before blanching)
4 large onions, cut in thin wings (halved, then diced vertically)
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ cup olive oil
½ cup lemon juice
2 tsp salt
1 cup boiled chickpeas (optional)
½ cup Greek style yoghurt (optional)
2 tbsp toasted pine nuts (optional)
- In a large frypan, heat up the olive oil and fry the onions with a tsp of salt on a gentle heat
- When the onions are slightly golden, remove half of them and set aside
- Continue to fry the onions, stirring every couple of minutes until they caramelise. Turn the heat down if they are cooking too quickly and keep a watchful eye, as they burn very easily
- Once caramelised, remove the onions, and keep the oil in the frypan
- Using the same oil, add the half cooked onions you removed earlier and the garlic and fry until the garlic begins to turn golden
- Add the dandelion leaf and the remaining salt. It might look like too much in the frypan, but the volume will drop significantly once cooked for a minute or two
- Keep cooking, stirring every couple of minutes until most of the moisture in the dandelion has evaporated. The colour should be getting dark, but not burn. The ingredients will begin to stick to the bottom of the pan. Keep cooking for 5 minutes, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice
- The dandelion leaf will absorb the liquid quickly. You can now set aside to cool and then refrigerate
- Once cool, you can toss in the boiled chickpeas (cold) and the pine nuts. Top with yoghurt and then the caramelised onions and enjoy