Look for lion-toothed leaves
by Genevieve Jacobs
Ah, glorious springtime: the daffodil, the tulip, the dandelion. Wait—did somebody say…dandelion? For many of us, just the mention of the word sends us racing to the shed for our weeding artillery. For some, the dandelion may evoke childhood memories of parental admonishment for blowing those irresistible fluffy puffballs all over Daddy’s perfect lawn, thus assuring a nice new crop for next year. But take heart, for this much-reviled weed may actually become a welcome addition to your garden, your salad, your sauté pan, and even your wine cellar!
Ever since suburban lawns started taking over America, the dandelion has been getting a bad rap. A member of Asteraceae, the sunflower family, Taraxacum officinale is an herbaceous bitter green better appreciated for its culinary value in times long past, when the emergence of spring greens was a welcome addition to the plate after a long, harsh winter. This easily recognized plant is widely distributed throughout North America, primarily where humans have settled and disturbed the soil. Dandelion is a tap-rooted perennial, which survives for two or more winters; seeds are easily dispersed on the wind throughout the growing season (often assisted by delighted children), and readily germinate in shallow, moist soil. New plants will also grow directly from the tap-root if it is injured or broken.
As a bitter herb, many people have been turned off to the plant because of the misguided assumption that you can just pick and eat it—though nothing is further from the truth. Dandelion will always be bitter, but you can influence your experience if you know a few tips about harvesting and preparation.
The plant’s bitterness increases in dry, sunny locations; therefore look for fast growing plants in shaded areas early in the growing season, and pick the center bunches of leaves rather than the outer ones before the plant flowers. Store them stem side down in a plastic bag (this will keep the sticky white sap that drains from them off the leaves) and use as soon as possible. You can continue to harvest into the season by providing shade and moisture, and picking new growth as it occurs. Leaves can be anywhere from three to eighteen inches long; taste first if you plan on using them raw, and use along with other greens—too much at once can cause digestive upset for some folks. Another way to enjoy them is boiled for 4 to 8 minutes (tasting frequently until bitterness is reduced), then drain them, adding butter, lemon juice, and a little salt; or sautéed in olive oil or bacon fat, as the addition of fat cuts the bitterness. Yellow flowers can be used as a lovely garnish for salads, sandwiches, stir-fries, etc., or battered and fried as fritters. They are sweet and dry if separated from the bitter bract, which holds them together. They are also the base material for wine, and are enjoyed steeped in hot water as a tea.
Every part of the humble dandelion is edible, from the root to the stalks to the flower buds. Whether you love this plant or never acquire the taste for it, it’s nice to know that if you can’t beat it, you can eat it.