The Dandelion is a Wild Spring Wonder
Article Written by MaryJane Butters
Spring is on its way! Any day now, we'll start seeing the resurgence of green. And among all those tender shoots popping up in your yard, you'll likely spot the round, leafy "rosettes" of budding Dandelions.
But wait! Don't run for the hoe or, worse yet, the wicked weed spray. Just because they have a habit of popping up everywhere doesn't mean that Dandelions deserve our disdain. Take a moment to remember the warm, idyllic days of childhood. How exciting it was to see those sunny little Dandelion heads appear, hailing the splendor of a new season. Whether we were making dandy chains and crowns or brushing the flowers' golden spray upon the faces of our playmates, Dandelions were delightful. And even as adults, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate these wild spring wonders.
With all of the recent focus on eating locally for the sakes of our health and the environment, we may be overlooking one of the easiest and most wholesome vegetables available. The Dandelion is a highly nutritious and versatile wild food that has been harvested for ages, dating back to a time when our winter diets were heavy in fats and starches, and sorely lacked the lush, seasonal greens that we can now buy at the grocery store year-'round.
Dandelion greens are rich in vitamins and minerals. Half a cup of leaves contains more calcium than a glass of milk, and they boast even more iron than spinach. Plus, they're packed with protein, inulin (a natural fiber) and pectin (which has been reported to lower cholesterol). And when you start looking at Dandelion greens as lunch, you'll be glad that they're so easy to come by. Unlike several other wild edibles, there's no need to worry about confusing Dandelions with poisonous look-alikes because there aren't any. Just be sure to avoid plants that may have been sprayed with chemicals by those who have yet to discover that Dandelions are delectable.
Dandelion leaves are the tastiest in early spring before the flowers appear. When adding them to salads, pick the youngest and most tender leaves before the stalk appears, and wash them in very cold water because they wilt quickly. Keep them covered and chilled until you're ready to use them. If you're looking for a unique addition to pasta dishes or veggie medleys, saute Dandelion leaves for about 20 minutes with garlic and olive oil. You can also eat Dandelion greens as you would spinach, turnips or collard greens. Boil the leaves until they're tender, changing the water once to mellow their tangy taste, then garnish with butter and lemon juice. The water in which the greens are cooked can be saved and sipped as a tonic tea to recharge our winter-weary digestive systems.
Even the Dandelion's taproot (which can reach up to a foot and a half in length) is edible. Early spring is an ideal time to harvest the root, which is where most of the plant's nutrients have been stored through the winter. Choose areas where the soil is soft for easier digging (undisturbed areas usually yield larger roots than frequently mowed lawns). Pluck or dig the root from the ground, wash it thoroughly, and chop it like a carrot or parsnip to toss in soups. Let it simmer long and slow to mellow its flavor.
When those dandy yellow flowers first appear, rejoice because they, too, can "sunny up" salads and stir-fried veggies. Or dip them in batter and fry 'em up for a "meaty" appetizer. Use only the yellow parts, though, because the green base is generally too bitter for most people's tastes.
No matter how you pick, prepare or serve them, Dandelions are a truly tasty local treat.
Roasted Dandelion Root "Coffee"
When brewed properly, Dandelion-root coffee closely resembles the rich flavor of traditional coffee, and it contains a wealth of vitamins and minerals.
One 5-gallon bucket of Dandelion roots (to yield about 10 gallons of coffee)
Cream and sugar, to taste
Heat oven to 250 degrees.
To wash the roots, fill the bucket with water and rub the roots with your hands. Pour off the muddy water and repeat this process a few times until the water runs clear and you have a pile of luscious, golden roots. Don't worry if there's still some dirt left on them -- you'll wash them again after chopping. With a sturdy knife, cut the roots into chunks. Put these into a large bowl (or sink), fill with water, then rub the roots and rinse until clean. Drain until fairly dry or pat with a towel.
Chop about 2 cups of root chunks at a time in your food processor until they're chopped into small, coarse bits.
To roast the roots, spread the coarsely ground roots on baking sheets about 1/2-inch thick. Place as many sheets as you can fit into your oven and leave the oven door slightly ajar to let moisture escape. The roasting process takes about 2 hours. Stir frequently and rotate the baking sheets occasionally to ensure even drying and roasting. As the roots dry, they'll shrink and darken to a rich coffee color, but be careful not to let them burn. Cool completely and store in glass jars. Flavorful additions such as anise, cinnamon, ginger and carob can be included if you like.
To brew the coffee, either grind the roots in a coffee mill and brew in a coffee pot or place the coarsely ground roots in a tea infuser and boil in a pot of water. Use 1 tablespoon of roasted roots for each cup of water (1/3 cup per quart of water). Adjust to your taste if you like it stronger or weaker. Add cream and sugar, if using.