The summer is a time of dandelions in much of the United States. While they are now considered particularly stubborn weeds, Columbia University notes that they were originally brought here by the early Puritan settlers as a source for food and medicine. When I first made a hobby of wildcrafting (gathering edible wild plants) six years ago, my first stop was this attractive, free, no-hassle source of food just a step outside my door.
Dandelion greens have more iron and calcium than spinach, as well as being rich in vitamins A and C. They are used in other countries as a treatment for anemia, jaundice, water retention, digestive issues, and eye problems. Every part of the plant is edible, from the root to the flower. The root is often roasted and used as a coffee substitute or medicinal tea. The flower is added to salads, breaded and fried as fritters, or made into wine. The leaves are eaten fresh or cooked like other greens. Best of all, they are often available for absolutely free in your lawn and garden.
Most dandelion look-alikes are not toxic, but are very bitter and tough to eat. Dandelions always grow in what is known as a basal rosette. This means that all the leaves grow in a round cluster from the base of the plant (rather than the stem). The leaves are deeply and irregularly toothed and not hairy. The stems grow from the center of the rosette and never branch. The stem is hollow and easily crushed, and it exudes a white milky liquid when broken. The flowers are single (one per stem) and grow only at the tip of the stem. The stem is smooth and not hairy. If any of these features are missing, you do not have a dandelion.
If you have a latex allergy, you should avoid dandelions. The white milky sap present in the root, stem, and flower is a form of latex and may cause a reaction.
Do not gather wild food from lawns or areas treated with pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers not intended for food crops within the past two years. Avoid gathering from roadsides and ditches where runoff of pollutants could contaminate the plant. Wash wild gathered plants thoroughly before using.
Fresh greens for salads and sandwiches should be gathered in the early spring before flowers appear. The greens toughen and become more bitter as summer advances, so late summer and fall dandelions should be cooked. The flower can be gathered and cooked as long as it is still yellow but are best gathered early in the morning. The root will be sweetest in the spring, but can be gathered anytime between fall and spring when the plant is dormant.
Discard leaves that are discolored or insect-eaten.
Dandelion greens have a bitter flavor similar to endive and can be prepared like mustard greens or kale. Adding sweet flavors (such as bacon or fruit) helps alleviate the bitterness, and spiciness helps balance the strong flavor. Pre-boiling and rinsing the leaves before cooking brings down the bitterness as well. Like other greens, the leaves shrink considerably in cooking, so 8 cups of fresh leaves will become 2 cups when cooked down.
Sweet and Spicy Dandelion Greens (serves 4)
2 lbs dandelion greens (about 8 cups by measure)
10 cups water
2 medium cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1/4 cups golden raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts (optional)
Boil water in a large pot (optional: add a half teaspoon table salt).
Wash the greens well and remove stem ends. Cut into rough 2-inch sections cross-wise (across the leaf).
Boil greens for 4 minutes.
Drain in colander and rinse well with cold water.
Dry leaves in salad spinner or with paper towels.
Heat olive oil in pan or wok until hot (medium-high heat) but not smoking.
Add garlic and saute for 30 seconds
Add the greens, pepper, salt and raisins. Saute for up to three minutes or until moisture is removed from greens.
Add lemon juice and continue to saute for an additional minute, or until greens start to crisp a bit around the edges.
Top with pine nuts (optional).