With the arrival of spring, and disappearance of snow, mountain meadows in the Altopiano d’Asiago to Trentino abound with many varieties of herbs and wildflowers. These regions in northern Italy that we visit all year round, with our summer bike tours and winter ski holidays, have a long tradition of using local plants in cooking and digestifs. Over the centuries, the residents of these regions have developed an expertise in the many possible uses of these plants. Once passed down from generation to generation, this tradition is in danger of disappearing.
There are a few bright spots, however. Many Italian chefs in the rifugios we enjoy on our Italy tours are now rediscovering the plants growing in their own back yard, and putting them to use in their modern kitchens. Everyone seems to have their own homemade flavored grappa, with their favorite combination of plants. One plant easily found both in Italy and in my own backyard here in the US that makes it’s way into many dishes is the humble dandelion.
The dandelion, Taraxacum, or tarassaco in Italian, is a flowering plant in the Asteraceae family. The entire plant is edible, from the yellow flower that is used to flavor frittatas and risottos, to the taproot which can be roasted and ground into a coffee. The leaves are most commonly used, with a slightly bitter flavor they are best cooked. Historically, dandelion was used as a herbal remedy to treat infections, bile and liver problems, and as a diuretic – the latter property leading to the folk name for the plant, in English “piss-a-bed” or French “pissenlit.”
In Conco, Italy, just north of the Asiago plateau, their native microclimate and soil produce dandelions that are particularly delicate, sweet and tender. They celebrate the appearance of tarassaco each spring with their “A tavolo con il Tarassaco di Conco” festival. Held in April and May, the restaurants of Conco offers menus that highlight their local dandelions, from appetizers to desserts, soups and risottos, stuffed roasts and salads. Miele di Tarassaco – the local honey – is the perfect accompaniment to a great aged Asiago cheese.
Here is a recipe for a simple Risotto al Tarassaco, flavored with some fresh spring onions. I had no dandelions in my yard, but purchased these at my local farm stand. I would have garnished this dish with the yellow petals of the flower, had I had some. Next time! I am sure to make this again.
Risotto al Tarassaco
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 spring onion, white bulb chopped into 1/4” dice, green stems thinly sliced
1 cup risotto rice (Vialone Nano, Carnaroli, Arborio)
1/2 cup white wine
1 bunch dandelion greens, washed and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup grated aged Asiago cheese
Combine the oil and butter in a heavy, large skillet over medium-high heat.
Warm the stock in a saucepan, covered to keep it from evaporating.
Add the chopped white bulb of the onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in the rice to coat with the oil, and cook for 1 minute.
Add the white wine and stir, cooking until absorbed by rice. Begin to add the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition and waiting until the broth is absorbed by the rice before adding the next 1/2 cup.
After about 10 minutes of cooking, when the grains of rice are beginning to soften, stir in the chopped dandelion leaves.
When the rice is tender, but still firm to the bite – al dente, turn off the heat. Add in a last 1/4 cup of broth and the grated cheese. You likely will not use all of the stock – you should cook just until done, not until the stock is gone! The amount of cooking time will depend greatly on the type of rice, the age, and relative humidity, so use your judgement. Season with salt and pepper, garnish with the sliced green onion stems and any dandelion petals, and serve immediately.