The First Dandelion Simple and fresh and fair from winter's close emerging, As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been, Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass--innocent, golden, calm as the dawn, The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face.
by Walt Whitman
Nothing says spring like dandelions! These golden flowers are starting to spring up, providing an early source of food to insects. And keen foragers have been getting their fix of fresh greens for several weeks. With every part of the plant being edible, you’ll never hear me use the four letter "w" word to refer to these nutritious and delicious plants.
The dandelion we see most often is Taraxacum officinale, the common dandelion. It is in the Asteraceae family, the largest family of vascular plants, and includes such common edibles as lettuces, chicory, and sunflowers. It is found throughout North America and Eurasia, famously known for adding a splash of colour to otherwise monochrome lawns.
With its wind dispersed seeds, these plants can be found almost anywhere in the city. Fertile, moist soils produce the best tasting dandelions…like in vegetable and flower gardens. As a teenager, I remember my mother harvesting amazing plants at the end of U-Pick strawberry fields. As always, keep safety in mind when you are harvesting. Avoid areas sprayed with pesticides. And, keep in mind that lead does accumulate in the tissues of leafy greens like dandelions and in the roots.
All parts of dandelions are edible and nutritious. The leaves have more iron and calcium than spinach, and are high in vitamins A and C. Roots and leaves act as a diuretic, giving dandelion its other common name. Leaves and roots are said to be good for the liver and for cleansing blood.
So let’s start from the bottom up. Dandelions have long, thick tap roots. It is best to use something long to leverage out the roots. There are many tools available for this task, but a small trowel works well. Luckily, the roots are brittle and break easily, which almost guarantees that a piece will be left behind to grow another plant. The roots can be roasted on a very low heat, and then ground to be used as a caffeine-free coffee substitute. (While I do enjoy drinking it, I wouldn't give up my coffee for it). I sometimes mix it 50:50 with real coffee for those times when I shouldn't be consuming too much caffeine.
The hearts of dandelions (the part between the base of the leaves and roots), and the leaves are best harvested before the plants have flowered. The hearts can be steamed and served with olive oil and lemon juice, thrown into stir fries, or made into soups. Young leaves can be thrown into salads. It is best to use other greens that can “dilute” the bitterness, since they do have a strong flavour. Older leaves can be boiled to get rid of the bitterness and served with olive oil and lemon juice. The left over water tastes surprisingly mild and earthy, like rice tea.
One of my favourite recipes for dandelion greens are in avgolemono, Greek stews which are thickened with egg whites, and flavoured with lemon and dill. Most recipes that I have seen on line call for lettuce, but substituting chopped dandelion and adding it 10 minutes sooner than what the recipe calls for will give you a rich, unique flavour. My father’s lamb avgolemono with dandelions is one of my favourite dishes.
Once dandelions have flowered, the leaves tend to get bitter. But, you can now harvest the buds and flowers. Flower buds are best harvested before the stalk gets too long (less than 4 inches). The younger they are, the less bitter. Again, these can be steamed, thrown into soups, omlettes, and savoury pies. They are delicate so do not need to be cooked for too long.
If the buds have opened, you can still use the flower petals. The bracts(the green parts under the flower) are bitter so it is best to remove them. You can simply roll the entire flower, pinching the bracts, in between your fingers or just pull off the green parts. These petals can be made into soups, teas, syrups, and wine. Some people make vegan honey using dandelion flowers, which involves steeping them in water and boiling down the liquid.
A quick on line search will reveal the many ways to cook and serve dandelions. Once you control the bitterness (by harvesting them young, diluting with other greens, cooking it out, or masking it with lemon and olive oil), you end up with a green and earthy flavour. In my opinion, dandelions should be celebrated for their versatility, availability, and resiliency!