Foraging is not just a throwback to our hunter-gatherer past; it’s a way to reconnect with the landscape. Gifted storyteller Langdon Cook is not just your typical grocery cart-toting dad. For him, gourmet delicacies abound in the Pacific Northwest, free for the taking if we just open our eyes. In this instance, we don’t need to look much further than our own backyards. Enjoy Cook’s bottomless knowledge of all things dandelion, as well as a tasty recipe made with this humble weed!
I’m not a big fan of the American lawn, that one-note symphony of righteousness that seems to suggest moral rectitude on the part of the homeowner willing to commit himself to a never-ending battle with weeds. As a place to play catch and kick a soccer ball, I’ll let you have your backyard turf. But that front lawn of manicured green running from door to sidewalk? That monochromatic parcel of mindless geometry? That Victorian notion of the garden as anchor to the wind of godless wilderness? It needs to go.
My neighbors are forever grappling with the weeds that so easily outwit them at every turn. They pull and mow and dump gallons of fertilizers and herbicides, heedless of the ever-dwindling salmon that will end up drinking in the polluted run-off. Has none of them read Silent Spring? Meanwhile, I’ve let my own lawn go to hell, earning the hairy eyeball as property values around me take a hit. One day I’ll rip out the lawn altogether and replace its humdrum bed of grass with a more visually stimulating rock garden of some sort, with native plants that don’t require constant coddling like spoiled children. In the interim I’ll make use of the lawn’s best feature: its dandelions.
For millennia the common dandelion has been revered for its medicinal qualities. In 1753 Linnaeus gave it the scientific name Leontodon taraxacum, roughly translated as medicinal “lion’s tooth,” and in 1779 George Heinrich Weber renamed it Taraxacum officinale, or “official remedy.” The sick ate its roots in winter and its tender leaves in spring and were restored to health. Now we have vitamin supplements, and the once mighty dandelion has been consigned to a long list of pests to be stamped out. It’s too bad. Study after study shows that vitamins absorbed through food are far more effective than any supplement. Dandelions, it turns out, are bursting with vitamins and trace minerals, in part because of those exasperating taproots – the bane of lawn-care professionals everywhere – that can reach two feet or more down into the soil. According to Peter Gail, president of Defenders of Dandelions, these common weeds “contain more beta-carotene than carrots, more potassium than bananas, more lecithin than soybeans, more iron than spinach, and loads of Vitamins A, C, E, thiamine and riboflavin, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium.”
And they taste good. Gail has written an entire book on the hated weed, The Dandelion Celebration, with a decidedly open-minded viewpoint. He includes scores of recipes, many of them submitted by dandelion connoisseurs from coast to coast, some of them quite surprising. After being roasted, for instance, dandelion roots can be ground up to make a coffeelike beverage or used to flavor ice cream. The early spring leaves can add zest to salads, just like any expensive baby lettuce with a French name. They can also be steamed and sautéed like kale or spinach, or cooked with a chunk of salt pork like collards. Europeans regularly cook with dandelion greens. Once the buds appear the leaves become too bitter for most palates, but the buds themselves are a bright addition to omelets (Martha says eating them is like nibbling on a little piece of sunshine), and the flower petals can be used in all sorts of ways, from baking to mead-brewing.
One of my favorite ways to use dandelions is in bread. The yellow petals give the loaf a sunny countenance that belies the simplicity of the recipe, but the real proof of edibility came not long ago when I brought a loaf to a barbecue and watch the amazed faces of a few parents as their kids bypassed a platter of corn syrup-infused hotdog rolls and hamburger buns in favor of a dandy treat.
I guess one of these afternoons when the sun is out I’ll resuscitate my ancient lawn mower and make my neighbors happy. But first I’ve got some dandelions to harvest. Call me crazy.
Dandy Bread and Muffins
Langdon Cook has a popular and entertaining blog at: http://fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com/
This recipe is adapted from one in Peter Gail’s The Dandelion Celebration, the main difference being that I like to double the amount of dandelion petals, for both look and flavor. You can also experiment by adding in different combinations of fresh herbs. Before making this recipe, you’ll need to harvest at least a cup of dandelion petals. This shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes or so with the right flowers and technique. Choose tall, robust dandelions that have been allowed to grow freely. Abandoned lots and field margins are good places to look. The presence of dandelions usually indicates that herbicides are not in use, but roadside specimens can contain the residue of other chemicals. Choose your spots wisely. You’ll want to harvest in the morning, before the flowers have fully opened. Grasp the yellow part of the flower (the petals) and twist away from the green sepals and stem. Discard any greenery.
2 cups unbleached or whole soft pastry wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup dandelion petals
Scant 1½ cups milk
4 tablespoons honey
¼ cup sunflower oil
In a large bowl combine dry ingredients, including petals, and mix. Make sure to separate any clumps of petals. In a separate bowl mix together milk, honey, and oil, and beat in egg. Add liquid ingredients to dry and stir. Batter should be fairly wet and lumpy.
Pour into buttered bread tin or muffin tin. Bake at 400 degrees. A dozen muffins will take 20-25 minutes. Bread will take at least 25-30 minutes; at 25 minutes, check doneness with a toothpick. If it’s still too moist, lower oven temperature and continue to bake, checking every 5 minutes to avoid overbaking.