I’ve been learning about edible weeds for a long long time. I have a used copy of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” that I bought almost 30 years ago. But there is one problem. I never actually get around to eating the wild plants. I know you CAN eat them, but I almost never do. And if the situation ever became more critical (I NEEDED to know how to prepare and eat them) I’d be flying by the seat of my pants and challenging my palate while already dealing with a stressful situation. Not a good combination.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are good forage, and good for you. It doesn’t take long on Google to discover this. It’s thought that the ubiquitous dandelion is found all across the US because it escaped cultivation when it was brought here by immigrants (they are native to Eurasia). It has a long history as a spring tonic, a good bitter salad or saute green, and as a medicinal (the roots are diuretic – alternative names for dandelion are variations on “bed wet”). According to Mother Earth News, dandelions are high in vitamins A and C, calcium, and minerals, and they rank higher than lettuce (cos or romaine) in protein, carbohydrates, calcium, and iron, and much higher in nearly all vitamins and minerals.
The plant itself is in the composite family (officially called compositae or asteraceae – think sunflowers and many many other plants that have clusters of small flowers that seem like one big flower, but really aren’t). They are perennial (the plant survives for many years) and sends down a deep tap-root, which brings up minerals from deep in the soil (which is all that great mineral nutrition comes from). The leaves are toothed (the English name dandelion is actually a bastardization of the French name dent de lion, or lion’s tooth). There ARE some look-alike weeds out there, though not if you look closely. Watch this video – the whole series is great – if you are unsure of the ID. As always, never eat something you aren’t 100% sure of the ID on. Harvest in areas that are pollution and herbicide free (ie no roadsides). You can now often find dandelion greens bunched at your local grocery store as well. Harvest by gathering the leaves in your hand and slicing off with a knife just above the crown (the base from which the leaves are growing).
Though the bane of gardeners and lawn owners everywhere, because they liked disturbed ground, produce thousands of seeds, and are hard to get rid of, I personally have always liked the dandelion plant. The flowers are one of THE first food sources for honey bees in spring. I tend to leave them be, unless they are crowding out a plant I am trying to grow.
I’ve made dandelion wine in the past (the book, by Ray Bradbury, of the same name, is an all time favorite, and a bit of a touch stone for me). I’ve made dandelion jelly (it tastes like honey). Both are worth doing at least once, but are a LOT of work because you primarily use just the petals, and cutting off the base on hundreds and hundreds of dandelion blossoms…well, it helps explain why in olden times families had a lot of kids around to help with chores!
Dandelion leaves (greens) have a distinct bitter taste. The older the plant and the more its growing in full sun, the more bitter the flavor. The problem is that I’ve never been a fan of bitter. I don’t like coffee. I don’t like mustard greens. I don’t enjoy arugula. So…eating a salad of dandelion greens is a bit of a palate challenge for me. Harvesting dandelion greens early in the year (before the plant goes to flower) and harvesting greens that are growing in at least partial shade cuts down on the bitterness. What do I think is the best way to eat dandelion greens? Pesto!
Dandelion Greens Pesto
Makes about 3/4 cup – enough to easily dress 1 lb of pasta
- ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted (or substitute almonds, walnuts, pistachios or other nut of choice)
- 3 medium cloves garlic, unpeeled
- 2 cups packed fresh dandelion leaves, triple washed to remove dirt
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves (optional)
- 7 tablespoons good quality extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese or Pecorino Romano
- Ground black pepper
Toast your nuts and garlic cloves in a skillet on medium heat until slightly browned and fragrant (as an alternative – toast in your toaster oven on lowest “toast” setting and watch carefully. Once I learned this technique I never get a pan dirty toasting nuts anymore). Peel your garlic once it’s toasted.
Wash your greens well. They tend to be quite dirty. Pick out any blossom stems, blossoms, wilted or yellowed leaves, and any other bits of plant matter that may be there from other weeds/grass or last year’s spent plant. Dry in a salad spinner or shake in a dish towel to remove as much water as possible. Measure by packing into a 2 cup measuring cup.
Place all ingredients except for oil, cheese, salt and pepper into food processor. Pulse until ingredients are coarsely chopped. With processor running, slowly drizzle in olive oil until a smooth paste forms. Add cheese, salt and pepper to taste and pulse again to mix. (You can also do this in a blender, or you could do this by hand, using a mortar and pestle, but this is one instance where having a food processor is really welcome).
When serving over pasta, save some of the pasta water (1 cup or so – you may not need it all) when draining cooked pasta and add it back to the pesto when tossing with the pasta. This will make a lovely creamy sauce. Extra pesto can be frozen into ice-cube trays and stored in a zip top bag for future meals. We did a batch of dandelion pesto stuffed pork chops the other night with some of the left overs. Yum!
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2016, where in other news, we have 28 lamb babies on the ground, who are happily eating any dandelions they find.