Who's Your Dandy?
Preaching the merits of dandelions can be a lonely job. Decades of long persuasion and propaganda from Madison Avenue have vilified this amazing plant, causing homeowners to reach for chemicals in a quest to wipe them off the face of the planet — or at least banish them from their lawns.
When I tell people that I actually move wild plants INTO my vegetable garden, their collective jaws drop to the floor and they look at me like my hair’s on fire. Gardening friends consider dandelion a dirty word, even when I tell them it’s one of the most nutritious plants in the world.
Spring is the best time to harvest the wild greens, just as they begin to emerge. This is when they are most tender and the least bitter. Whenever picking anything from outside the garden, make sure the plants are safe and haven’t been treated with herbicides or pesticides. (It’s also good to know where the dog is walked.)
Once the little bud emerges from the center of the plant, the leaves become less tasty. Once the plant has gone through the flowering cycle, it can be cut to the ground. What sprouts next will be perfect to use in the kitchen and the plant will continually produce after each cutting.
The bitterness of dandelion greens is an acquired taste, but that unique flavor is what draws fans to them. They have traditionally been served by wilting them in hot bacon grease. (The best of both worlds?) The greens also pair well with balsamic vinegar and red sauce. One way to cast a dandelion spell on friends is to serve small pizzas with tomato sauce, dandelion greens, and a soft, melted cheese. I never reveal what they are eating until after the first bite when they start raving and wondering about the amazingly fresh flavor awakening their palates.
Every part of the plant is edible, except the seed head that we had fun playing with as children. The roots can be made into a coffee-like drink, and the flowers are used to make everything from cookies to burgers. I’ve tasted everything from savory to sweet when I judged the now-defunct Annual Dandelion Cook-off held in Dover, Ohio at Breitenbach Wine Cellars. (They still hold a Dandelion Festival during the first weekend of May.) The trick to creating a winning recipe is adding enough dandelion to taste it, but not to overwhelm the dish.
Since dandelions taste and grow better in good soil, the wild varieties are moved to the edges of compost-rich beds in the vegetable garden.
Whenever I discuss dandelions with gardeners, I always tell stories of parents or grandparents who harvested the greens as winter faded.
The gardening dandelion obsession has taken a new turn over the last decade in my garden, as I’m growing cultivated varieties. Most cultivars won’t flower. The seeds can be started indoors or direct-sowed out in the garden. Italiko Rosso, Clio, and Catalogna Special are just some of the varieties available commercially. They are easy to grow, have less bitterness, and are exceptionally tender.
“A weed is just an unloved flower,” goes the familiar gardening quote. If you think of dandelions as beautiful and tasty, then they are no longer weeds. Pick some this spring and maybe you’ll fall for them like I have.They're not a weed. You're a weed.
Backyard Foraging by Ellen Zachos is a beautifully written book and a great resource for people interested in harvesting from the wild. backyardforager.com