As we begin to eat the very first produce from our summer garden, we focus on one of our easiest and most beneficial “crops”: dandelions.
As most people know, dandelions are not native to North America. Early settlers from Europe introduced them here, bringing them with them as an important food source. This seems almost impossible now that the plant has become one of our most virulent and reviled weeds. However, just because most gardeners hate them doesn’t mean their food value has diminished in any way.
We’ve eaten dandelions on and off for years. Long ago, we picked the flower stems and split them open so we could thoroughly wash out the bitter white sap inside. This gave us a crisp, fresh, almost fruit-like additive to salads and the like. This turns out to be an extremely narrow, limited use of an excellent food source. Now that we know more about them, we make a point of eating dandelions in a variety of ways.
Our enthusiasm grew after reading The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine by Peter Gail (check your local independent bookstore). This book offers exhaustive praise for dandelions. If only half of the book’s claims are true, we should all be eating dandelions whenever we can! At the risk of being too brief, dandelions are apparently an incredibly healthy food for humans.
This book urges dandelion eaters to harvest the parts of the plant before flowers form, to avoid the bitterness. It also offers various ways to mitigate the bitterness. We try not to bother with that for the simple reason that we find it too limiting. The advantage of wild greens comes from the freedom from cultivation requirements; if we get too picky about harvest periods or other plant management, it becomes another garden plant.
Instead, we accept that, like most wild greens, dandelions will have a strong flavor. If we intend to eat dandelions, we need to accustomize our tastes to the flavors through consumption.
We learned this trick from an alternative toothpaste that uses fewer sweeteners. The “instructions” on the toothpaste point out because most of us have grown accustomed to highly sweetened toothpastes (usually with high fructose corn syrup) users will not like the toothpaste at first. They recommend using it a few times to grow accustom to it. We did that, and now, if I have to use regular commercial toothpaste, I feel like I’m brushing my teeth with cake frosting!
After a few summers of eating dandelion greens, the bitterness seems part of the flavor. We’d be lost without it! That frees us from the more limited harvest period and the extra work required to mitigate the bitterness.
Other than the obvious, using dandelions in salads, we like to use them as many Italians do, adding a large handful of leaves to our pasta a few minutes before its finished cooking. This adds considerable vegetable food value to our spaghetti. We hardly notice the flavor in a good, spicey pasta sauce, but we appreciate the texture.
We have not yet expanded dandelion use in two very obvious directions: I have not tried making coffee substitute with roasted dandelion root, nor have I made dandelion wine. I intend to try the latter, at least, but that requires careful timing for optimum results. I’ll have to plan for that one carefully, perhaps next year.