Real Food Encyclopedia | Dandelions
One person’s weed is another’s salad: for some, dandelions are a pesky nuisance in the quest for a perfectly groomed lawn. Others value them for the perky burst of yellow, signaling full-blown spring. You might not realize that they’re also edible. A few generations ago, people made wine out of dandelion flowers and cooked the greens as a vegetable. These days dandelion greens have made their way back to the farmers’ market and the food co-op shelves. Many people enjoy their bitter bite.
Fun Facts about Dandelions:
- According to ethnobotanists, the first reference to the use of dandelions in medicine comes from Arab physicians in the 10th century. In addition to its reputed diuretic properties, the plant is also used for digestive issues, including as an appetite stimulant and as a laxative. It is also said to help with liver problems and high blood pressure.
- In her fascinating book about the natural history of the plant, “The Teeth of the Lion,” Anita Sanchez speculates that dandelion seeds were botanical stowaways on the first ships that crossed the Atlantic to what is now the US. The ships’ ballast, usually made up of soil and stones, likely contained seeds, dandelion among them. She says that by 1672, the common dandelion was well established in North America.
What to Look for When Buying and Foraging Dandelions
Cultivated dandelion greens tend to be quite a bit larger than their foraged counterparts. Both are dark green, with deeply serrated leaves. Some cultivated greens marked “dandelion” are not taxonomically dandelions at all, but a type of Italian chicory, commonly called “Catalonian dandelion.” From a culinary perspective, these greens can be used exactly like true dandelion greens and have the same pleasingly bitter bite. They are notably longer than true dandelions.
Look for greens with no wilted, yellow or brown spots on them. You’ll probably be hard pressed to find fresh flowers or root for sale, but their dried counterparts are available at some natural food stores and herbal medicine shops.
According to Wildman Steve Brill, a New York City forager and naturalist (who was once famously arrested for harvesting wild dandelion greens in Central Park), the best time to harvest wild dandelion greens is before they flower, after which the leaves become markedly more bitter. If you do choose to forage for dandelions, make sure to do so in a spot that has never been sprayed with herbicides or insecticides. Here’s a video from Serious Eats that demonstrates basics of dandelion foraging.
Sustainability of Dandelions
Pesticides and Dandelions
Cultivated dandelion greens are still a specialty crop in the US and are mostly found at farmers’ markets and farm stands. Fortunately, dandelions don’t appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides on Produce.
Dandelions’ environmental impact has less to do with their role as a food and more to do with their perception as a hard-to-control weed. In Americans’ quest for the perfect patch of green, we use almost 80 million pounds of dangerous pesticides per year on US lawns, according to this report. Some of this is in the form of weed control chemicals like glyphosate, a chemical linked to a number of health problems, including Parkinson’s and some cancers. Here are a few natural ways to get rid of dandelions. Or you can just embrace the plant and eat it.
Dandelion greens are at their best in the spring to very early summer, before the flowers begin to bloom, while the yellow flowers can be harvested throughout the summer and into early fall. The roots are best in the late summer through late fall.
Storing Dandelion Greens
Store dandelion greens wrapped in a damp paper towel in an open zip-top bag in your crisper drawer for no more than two or three days.
Cooking with Dandelions
All parts of plant are edible, though the leaves and the flowers are the most delicious. Because the greens are quite bitter, they are often paired with ingredients that temper the bitter bite. Dandelion greens are delicious both raw and cooked, while dandelion flowers can be used to stunning effect for garnish and to make all sorts of jellies, drinks and pickles.
Dandelion greens are often paired with rich ingredients like eggs, bacon and nuts. A classic French raw dandelion salad incorporates bacon, croutons, hard-boiled eggs and a Dijon dressing. They also pair well with strong flavors like garlic, onions, chiles and lemon juice. Dandelion greens are also excellent cooked. They can be sautéed or braised, just like other greens. Toss them into pasta and pair with a strong cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino, or make this delicious-sounding dandelion tart for your next brunch.
Blanching dandelion greens remove some of their bitterness. To blanch: remove any thick stems from your dandelion greens. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Toss in the dandelion greens and blanch for 1-2 minutes. Remove and plunge into an ice bath. Remove from the ice bath and squeeze as much water from the leaves as you can then use as you would any cooked green. (If you’ve harvested wild greens after the plant has flowered, the leaves may be especially bitter, and you may need to blanch them twice.)
Fresh dandelion flowers don’t have much flavor and their chief use in the kitchen, aside from their use in preserved foods (see below) is to add a cheerful yellow garnish to dishes. Pull petals from the flowers and scatter over a salad, rice or other grain, or toss whole flowers into salads. The flowers can also be made into a tea that supposedly helps with bloating. Like its relative chicory, dandelion roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (caffeine-free, of course). The roots can be boiled and served as a vegetable, or steeped into a tea.
Have a very weedy yard? Forget about those noxious pesticides. So much can be done to preserve dandelions! You can pickle dandelion buds or make this lacto-fermented dandelion soda. Or make dandelion wine with this dandelion wine recipe roundup. And here is a treasure trove of dandelion preservation ideas, including dandelion jelly, dandelion vinegar and dandelion bud “capers.”
Raw dandelion greens have a lot of Vitamin K, necessary for blood coagulation and bone health. The greens are also a great source of Vitamins A and C, and a decent source of iron, calcium, Vitamin E, potassium and manganese. The leaves even have a little bit of protein.