You may call them weeds, but to the pioneers, dandelions were dinner. After a long winter of root vegetables — progressively shrivelling and even running out — dandelions and other “weeds” were the first greens of spring. Mother Nature’s salad bar.
Tender young dandelion leaves were collected by the pailful, as were lamb’s quarters, sorrel and purslane, also known as portulaca. They were often eaten cooked, either alone or added to a recipe such as green borscht, a popular soup of potatoes, dill, sorrel and sour cream.
One method of preparing dandelion leaves went like this: whisk together an egg with half a cup of sour cream. Cook until thickened. Stir in a dab of butter and two tablespoons of vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Toss in a good amount of well-washed dandelion greens and cook until wilted. Eat warm.
Of course, dandelion leaves and other wild greens were not the only signs of spring in the kitchen. Every farmstead had a rhubarb patch which sprang to life before the last vestiges of snow had disappeared. Rhubarb was the first “fruit” of spring.
Back then, rhubarb was commonly called the “pie plant” because, as we all know, it makes an admirable pie. Of course, it also tastes great in a cake, crisp, bread pudding, compote and a jar of jam.
Even though rhubarb grows like a weed (try uprooting it!) it is not natural to the Canadian plains. However, that tenacity served it well during the time of the settlers. Many a pioneer arriving by train or horse-drawn wagon brought a piece of rhubarb root to set in their first Prairie garden and were quick to share it with immigrants from overseas who had travelled more sparsely.
Like dandelions, rhubarb is a good source of vitamin C, which might have been in short supply come spring, especially if the sauerkraut crock (also steeped in vitamin C) was dipping low.
Before rhubarb became associated with jams and pies, the root was used medicinally as a mild laxative and stomach tonic. It was not until the 1800s, when sugar from the West Indies became more widely available and more affordable in Europe that someone had the bright idea of sweetening the sour stalks and eating them.
The recipe below was provided to me by Irene Hagel, granddaughter of Norwegian pioneers who homesteaded near Weldon, east of Prince Albert, Sask. in 1902. Hans and Kristiane Lien had first settled in North Dakota but, unable to afford a farm of their own, they moved north to take advantage of the free homesteads offered in Canada.
For the move, they packed everything they owned into a rail car, including cattle, chickens, a team of horses and, yes, a root of rhubarb, which provided many memorable desserts over the years.
This recipe for rhubarb pudding, originally written in Norwegian, was found among the keepsakes of Hans and Kristiane that were passed down the generations. It’s a delicious way to welcome the first “fruits” of spring.
- 1 c. flour
- 1/4 c. brown sugar
- 1/2 c. butter
- 4 c. thinly sliced rhubarb
- 1 c. white sugar
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Mix flour and brown sugar. Rub in butter until blended. Put rhubarb in a buttered baking dish. Mix white sugar with cinnamon and sprinkle over rhubarb. Press flour mixture over top and bake at 325 F for 45 minutes. Serve warm or cold.
You can read the recipe in Norwegian on my food blog homefordinner.blogspot.com.