Early in the spring, when there is still a chill to the morning air, I walk out into the field behind the Pennsylvania farm I call home with a spade, a knife, and a bucket. The dandelions are ready to pull.
Many despise the dandelion. Its taproot delves deep into the soil, and unless you dig up the entire thing, when you pull one, two grow back in its place. It reproduces with ruthless efficiency; a single plant can sow as many as 5,000 seeds.
But I love this tenacious flower. It is a flare sent up from soft spring soil, the first signal to foragers like me that winter is over and a season of abundance has returned. There is a sense of ritual in this wild harvest: a quiet hour spent kneeling in a pristine field, witnessing the day coming to life, filling a bucket with small rosettes of jagged, pointed leaves.
That ritual carries over into their cooking. Dandelion was a staple in my grandparents’ Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen. My grandfather would pick the greens before the plants would flower, when they were at their most tender. My grandmother would toss them with a warm dressing. Today, I do the same. That dressing of vinegar, sugar, egg, and bacon is an alchemy of sweet and sharp and smoky. Its warmth softens the young leaves. (Here are8 more weeds you can eat.)
The early wild greens star in other dishes from across the globe: They are braised to melting softness in Greece; blanched and marinated in soy sauce in Japan; smashed and served in a warm potato salad in Germany. The plant owes its presence in the States to the wider world. Many waves of immigrants brought the dandelion to our shores. The Germans, the French, the Italians, and the Chinese all cherished this bitter tonic of spring and cultivated it here.
The first greens of the year are the most subtle in flavor. As the plants grow into early summer and go to flower, the leaves grow tougher and more bitter, but nothing is lost. Only a slight change in cooking direction is needed to tame them for dinner. I play up their peppery taste in garlicky pestos, or blanch the leaves to temper their bitterness before folding them into a savory dandelion, farro, and ricotta tart.
During times in my life when I lived in the city, and the dandelions in the parks seemed too trodden by people and dogs to pick for dinner, I sought out cultivated varieties, finding a new ritual in the Saturday morning subway ride to the green market. These varieties tend to have larger, less bitter leaves than their wild cousins. I still turn to them in deepest winter, when the wild greens are a distant memory. I grab a bunch from the grocery store, and, in my kitchen, I know they will work their magic any time I want a taste of spring.
How Dandelion Is Good For Your Yard and Your Health
Though many gardeners view the dandelion as a scourge, it actually improves soil health. Its taproot breaks up compacted soil, creating avenues for earthworms. The root also pulls up nutrients from the subsoil into its leaves, imbuing them with more beta-carotene than almost any other fruit or vegetable, and an abundance of lutein, which is important for eye health. The root and leaves simultaneously collect toxins in the environment, so it’s important to forage only in organic fields and at least 75 feet from roads. To harvest the greens, use a knife or a dandelion digger(available at hardware stores) to slice the plant a few inches below the top of the root, so the leaves remain together in clusters. If you plan to use the root, grab a spade to dig out more of the plant.
Almost every inch of the dandelion is good eating. Fresh dandelion root can be bitter, but it mellows when cooked. Try it steamed, sautéed, boiled, or roasted. And try these recipes for the fresh flowers!
Dandelion Flower Fritters With Lemon-Mayo Dipping Sauce
Rice flour is the key to keeping these golden nuggets of sunshine crisp, even an hour after they leave the oil. The bright lemon-mayo sauce brings balance to the flowers’ bitter notes.
½ cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1½ tablespoons sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup rice flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup club soda
about 3 cups vegetable oil
2 cups freshly picked dandelion flowers
1. Make the sauce: Whisk together the mayonnaise, zest, juice, sugar, and ¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.
2. Make the fritters: Stir together the rice and all-purpose flours with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Whisk in the club soda until combined.
3. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan to 375 degrees. Dip the flowers in the batter, one at a time, making sure the batter coats the flower petals, then place the flowers in the oil. Cook the flowers in batches of about 8, stirring occasionally, until they are crisp, 3 to 4 minutes per batch. Check the temperature of the oil, and make sure it comes back up to 375 degrees between batches.
4. As you go, transfer the cooked flowers to paper towels to drain. Serve with the dipping sauce.
Dandelion Flower Iced Tea
Make this tea just after you pick the flowers so they stay open—this will let the blooms release their pollen, which helps to balance the flowers’ inherent bitterness.
Makes 1 quart
1 quart freshly picked dandelion flowers
1 quart boiling water
½ cup superfine sugar or more to taste
1. Place the flowers in a heatproof pitcher and pour the water over them.
2. Let the tea steep for 1 hour, then strain out and discard the flowers.
3. Stir in the sugar until dissolved, then chill the tea until cold. Serve alone or as part of a cocktail.
Dandelion Gin Collins
Makes 1 drink
¼ cup dandelion Flower Iced Tea (see above)
2 tablespoons gin
1 tablespoon elderflower liqueur such as St. Germaine
Fresh dandelion flowers, to garnish
1. Fill a tall glass with ice.
2. Stir together the tea, gin, and elderflower liqueur, and then pour over the ice in the glass.
Here panna cotta, a delicate Italian dessert of sweetened cream thickened with gelatin, is infused with dandelion flowers and topped with a tart-sweet rhubarb sauce.
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup dandelion flowers
1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup sugar, divided
½ teaspoon kosher salt
11/8 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 tablespoon water
¼ cup sour cream
½ pound rhubarb, cut into chunks
2 tablespoons water or white wine
Fine sea salt
1. Make the panna cotta: Heat cream in a small saucepan over low heat with the dandelion flowers, 1/3 cup sugar, and salt until it simmers. Remove from heat, and let steep, covered, 10 minutes.
2. While the mixture is steeping, in a medium sized bowl, sprinkle gelatin over 1 tablespoon cold water and let it stand 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Strain the cream mixture, discarding the flowers, then pour it over the gelatin and whisk until gelatin is dissolved. Whisk in the sour cream. Divide between oiled ½ cup ramekins until the panna cotta is set, about 3 hours. Remove the panna cottas from their molds if you like.
4. Make the rhubarb sauce: Bring the 1/2 cup sugar, rhubarb, and wine to a boil in a small heavy saucepan, and cook until the rhubarb has fallen apart, about 20 minutes. Let the rhubarb cool to room temperature, and then serve with panna cotta.
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