Depending on your perspective, the little dandelion flowers that dot green lawns with yellow this time of year can be a cheerful sign of warmer days, a pesky weed to be destroyed or, once they've transformed into downy orbs, wish-fulfillment predictors.
To others, they represent free lunch. Dandelion greens now appear in many supermarkets, but if your lawn isn't treated with chemicals (or down the street from an industrial site) there's no reason you can't pluck and eat the greens growing in your own backyard—in salads, sautéed or wherever you'd use other greens. Less commonly known is that the flowers and even roots are also edible.
According to the out-of-print book Green Immigrant: The Plants That Transformed America, by Claire Shaver Haughton, "The dandelion is a plant of the Temperate Zones that probably originated in Asia Minor, but it had spread throughout the known world before written history. In the East, where the Chinese call it 'earth nail,' its long taproot and green leaves have been used for food and medicine since antiquity."
Patricia Banker, an edible-wild-plants expert who works with 4H in my area, provided me with the above passage as well as some recipes for dandelion flowers. She says the petals can be added to salads, breads, pastas, soups, or stews, giving them a slightly earthy or nutty flavor. "Describing the taste is not easy," she says. "It's a mixture of sweet and nutty."
The roots can be ground and roasted to make a coffee substitute. The flowers can also be dipped in batter and fried to make fritters, or added to hotcakes and topped with dandelion syrup (see recipes below).
One of the most common traditional uses of the flowers is to make dandelion wine, described by Ray Bradbury (who wrote a volume of autobiographical short stories named for the homemade beverage) as "summer caught and stoppered." It was once popular across Europe and in the United States.
I had the opportunity to try some of this sweet and fruity-tasting wine last year, when one of my colleagues was writing an article about her unsuccessful efforts to rehabilitate her Polish-American great-grandfather's hooch still. Faced with federal restrictions and the prospect of lead poisoning, she gave up and made another historic family recipe, dandelion wine. It wasn't exactly a fine Bordeaux, but it had a certain country charm—sweet and slightly citrusy, a little like California Coolers, for those of you who were around in the 1980s. I would not be surprised, given the current rural-chic vogue in some cities, to see it appear on the drink menu of a Brooklyn bar in the near future.
If you'd rather go non-alcoholic, here a couple of recipes from Patricia Banker:
This is a very old recipe that most likely came from the earliest European settlers who brought this "weed" with them as a food and herb source. Obviously they did not have access to oranges or lemons! It can be used as a substitute for honey in any recipe calling for honey, drizzled on French toast, ice cream….use your imagination! Also great in teas, and added to make medicine go down easier.
1 quart dandelion flowers. Be sure to leave as little green as possible.
1 quart (4 cups) water
4 cups sugar
Optional: ½ lemon or orange chopped, peel and all. It will give your syrup a lemony or orange taste. If you want pure dandelion flavor you may omit it. You may also substitute 1/2 chopped, tart apple, peel and all. The apple flavor is less obtrusive and the natural pectin will thicken the syrup a little quicker.
Collect blossoms late morning when they are fully opened. Rinse in cool water to remove insects.
1. Put blossoms and water in a pot. Never use aluminum!
2. Bring just to a boil, turn off heat, cover, and let sit overnight.
3. The next day, strain and press liquid out of flowers.
4. Add sugar (and sliced fruit or apple pectin) and heat slowly, stirring occasionally, for several hours or until it becomes a honey-like syrup.
5. Can in half-pint or 1 pint jars.
*This recipe makes a little more than 1 pint. You can triple or quadruple this recipe. Great Christmas gift!
Dandy-Lion Hot Cakes
1 cup white flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
¼ cup oil
½ cup dandelion blossom syrup or honey
2 cups milk
1 cup dandelion blossom petals
1. Mix dry ingredients first.
2. Add wet ingredients and mix together thoroughly
3. If mixture is too dry, add a little milk. Add flour if too thin.
4. Cook on hot, oiled grill.
5. Serve with butter and Dandelion Blossom syrup.