Everyone in the Willamette Valley (except me) knew to plant their potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day. Mine are still in a little bag on my kitchen table. Are yours?
Instead, I sit inside and dream of fluffy mashed potatoes, tossed with dandelion greens and olive oil, and topped with breadcrumbs. Mark Bittman profiled this delicious Ligurian dish a few days ago, and I’ve been longing for it ever since. It’s a fancy’d up version of the Irish colcannon, and thus appropriate for this holiday.
Bittman uses culivated dandelions, an entire bunch for two russet potatoes. He suggests using a darker, ranker green like collards if you can’t buy dandelions, but I, for one, think the dish would be even better with the weeds flourishing in our own lawns right now. Here in the Willamette Valley, that means tender native dandelion greens and little western bittercress (Cardamine oligosperma), the brassica relative you see in the picture above.
The cress is abundant right now; it’s the stuff with tiny white flowers that shoots seeds in your eye from little powerpacked cannon seed pods. I’m hoping you’ll recognize it immediately. Break off a leaf and try it if you do (and I’m not responsible if you don’t and eat, say, poison oak). Like other wild brassicae, it’s peppery and slightly mustardy, with a little sweetness to it. It’s lovely thrown into salads.
So here’s what I recommend. Skip the russets and cultivated dandelions, as delicious as they are.
Go out into your garden, dodging raindrops, and pick a big bowl full of the tenderest, nicest wild dandelion greens. Gather as much little western bittercress as you can, too. Wash the greens very well, looking for slugs, in several changes of water.
As you are washing your greens, put on a pot of heavily salted water. Use new potatoes instead of russets, about two big handfuls of them, boiling them until just done with the skins on. Then, mash your new potatoes in their skins very coarsely in a bowl with a fat glug of great olive oil.
Don’t blanch the greens, unless they are too bitter for your tastes (try a dandelion leaf or two), since the heat from the potatoes will cook them a bit. If you do find the dandelion too bitter, plunging the leaves into the potato water for 30 seconds or so will take away some of the bitterness. You don’t want to overcook them, though. Beware. The bland potatoes will make a nice foil for the bitterness.
Chop your dandelion greens in little pieces, and combine with the beautiful little cress leaves. Add all the greens to the bowl with the still hot potatoes, and combine well until the greens are slightly wilted and incorporated. Taste, add more salt, olive oil, or a bit of the potato cooking water if necessary. Don’t overmash: the final product should not be gluey or oily.
You can eat the mash as is, or top with fresh breadcrumbs that have been moistened with olive oil and then browned under a broiler for no more than a minute.
And we can serve this to Mark Bittman the next time he comes into town. :)