Taste It, Don't Waste It: Dandelions

Caption Photograph courtesy of Sherri Brooks Vinton

Delicious dandelion flowers and leaves

There's a lot to love about a dandelion. They are enduring, a fact you can attest to if you've ever tried to rid your lawn of them. They are intrepid, popping up in any available crack in the sidewalk, undaunted by streams of soles stomping by. And, in the opinion of more than a few, dandelions are beautiful. The Victorian era National Dandelion Society in Japan developed over 200 varieties to admire. And, as I will outline below, they are darned tasty. Welcome to your new crush. 

Springtime is dandelion time. That's when these diminutive chrysanthemum-like posies, aka Taraxacum officinale, pop through winter's thaw. When I was a kid I remember picking them by the fist full - they were everywhere all at once and, unlike other blossoms, no one gave a fig how many you plucked. They might even thank you for it. (Misguided lawn lovers may even pay you to do it.) For many, dandelions are seen as a scourge on their turf; invaders of the perfectly manicured, mowed, monoculture of green that is the default across so many suburban landscapes. And many homeowners go to great lengths - including spraying their lawns with toxic applications - to keep dandies away. 

But the wise eye knows how to spot a gift when they see it. Dandelions have been valued since, as far as we can tell, they made their dandy debut. Dandelions grow so extensively and have done so for so long that no one is sure where they originated, but the flowers are evident in many cultures. In traditional Chinese medicine, dandelions are used as a diuretic and liver tonic. Romans savored their bitter leaves. Settlers enjoyed them as one of the first spring "crops" available after hard, cold winters. For ages savvy eaters have enjoyed every bit of the plant, from root to petal, as a culinary delight and medicine, both. And you can, too. 

Dandelions are the most frequently foraged plant. Probably because they are not hard to come by and are pretty easy to spot. Their jagged, spikey leaves give them their name dent de lion, French for "lion's tooth." Yellow blossoms appear one per hollow stalk. If you are gathering dandelions it's important to remember to: 

  • Never pick roadside plants where fuel emissions and dust will coat your dandies
  • Never pick plants that have been sprayed or treated with pesticides
  • Try to get plants that are young and tender; the leaves get bitter as they age
  • Check local regulations before picking in public spaces
  • Pick early in the morning when flowers are at their freshest 

The plants wither very quickly and are best used on the same day they are picked, the following at the latest. Many recipes, such as dandelion wine, require a significant amount of petals -you'll need thousands of blossoms -so enlist friends to form a picking party (even the youngest foragers can contribute). And feel good that you are not only enjoying this gift from the garden but are connecting with millennia of eaters through a shared culinary delight. Try dandelions in some of these time-tested dishes: 

Dandelion Petals

To prep the petals you'll need to separate them from their bitter green base. To do that you can use your thumb and pointer finger to pinch them out in one go but you will crush the petals a bit. You can also snip them off with scissors - a little more painstaking, but you'll have fluffier petals. The petals have a bittersweet flavor. Here are some ideas on how to use up all of those petals:

Dandelion Leaves

Dandelion leaves to be eaten raw are best when they are fresh and young. As they age, the leaves get increasingly bitter. But they are still edible, particularly if you blanch them before using them in your recipe. Simply dunk them in a pot of boiling water for a minute, transfer to ice water to halt the cooking, dry and proceed with your recipe - bitter be gone! Great ways to use dandelion leaves include:

  • Salad: choose leaves from plants that have yet to flower for the mildest greens
  • Pesto: the bitterness of the leaves is balanced by the nuts and oil in the recipe
  • Sautéed: you can use all dandelion or a mix of leaves to lighten the flavor of this dish
  • Use in place of arugula in a sandwich - sometimes a little edge is just the thing, particularly when loading up your sammy with rich meats and cheeses
  • Use as a spinach substitute in quiche and frittata - and decorate your creation with flower petals for a brunch time show stopper 

Dandelion Roots

Dandelion roots are tough buggers and can reach fifteen feet down into the ground. That makes them great for breaking up the soil and incredibly water resistant. But you don't have to dig fifteen feet down to get to the good stuff. Grasp the plant at the base and pull up and you will most likely come away with at least six inches of underground goodness. It's not very tasty raw and maybe not even my favorite cooked, but dandelion roots have been valued in lean times as an abundant, free, nutritive food source. Gotta respect that. Here are some ways to use up those roots:

  • Boiled - maybe a little too low to the land for some, but a neat parlor trick to do with the kids
  • Ground and used to extend coffee- much like chicory, dandelion root as been used in lean times to get more bang for your buck out of your pound of beans 

Recipe: Dandelion and Lily Salad

Serves 4

This recipe uses the very common members of the lily family - onions and shallots -to lay down a silky, sweet caramelized base that bumps up against the bitter dandelion greens just perfectly. The warm dressing wilts the greens a bit, taking the edge off of their bite. Not an easy thing to do to a lion's tooth.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons butter

2 large yellow or white onions, diced

1 shallot diced

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

4 cups young dandelion greens (or a mixture of dandelion greens and spinach if you want to tame the bitterness of the dandies)

4 ounces fresh goat cheese

Petals from 2 dandelions for garnish (optional) 

Method:

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, sauté the onions and shallot, seasoned with salt and pepper, until translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Reduce heat to low and continue to sauté the onions and shallot until jammy and brown but not burned, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the vinegar. Add the mustard and whisk to combine. Add the greens and toss to coat evenly. The greens will wilt a bit but still maintain their texture. Divide between 4 plates. Top with crumbles of goat cheese and dandelion petals, if you like.

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