I’ve seen them on the news. Shawled women, tired and hungry children, stooping on roadsides gathering dandelions to cook. Starving refugees. Dandelions are the food of refugees.
At least that’s what I thought until I started reading a book my dad gave. It’s called Field Guide to Edible Plants by Bradford Angier. And it turns out that dandelions are not only eaten by those in dire situations, they are also eaten by people who simply love field greens. My grandparents probably ate dandelions. Your grandparents probably ate dandelions. They are readily available (found worldwide), cheap, and easy to cook. And now we know they pack a punch of vitamins. Refugees could do much worse.
But there is a downside. Bitterness. Extreme bitterness. In the article Making Dandelions Palatable John Kallas, writer for Backwoods Home Magazine and PhD of something outdoorsy, explains why so many of our elderly who remember eating dandelions don’t remember them being bitter. It’s all in the cooking. Some say it’s all in when you pick them, and that may have some impact, but cooking is they key. If you do it right, you can take a bitter piece of weed and turn it into a .. well, first I want to tell you about my family’s experience. I cooked dandelions for dinner last night.
Step One: Gathering
The first step was to find dandelions in a section my yard that has not been treated with any pesticides or peed on by the family dog. I don’t put pesticides on any of my yard, and no longer have a dog, so it was pretty much open season on the backyard.
I found plenty of dandelions, which I recognized by the zigzaggy leaves and the flower. I snipped off the leaves, leaving the root so it will grow back. (The roots are edible as well, but that’s for another meal.) But gathering the leaves got tricky when I realized some of the dandelion leaves weren’t as zigzaggy as the others. They were a little smoother and rounder. I wondered if they were a poisonous cousin. I snipped them anyway (rejecting any leaves with bird doo on the them) and then did a little research.
Turns out there is a plant called false dandelion “Catsear” (Hypochaeris radicata or Hypochoeris radicata). The only difference between eating this plant and true dandelions is that catsear is less bitter. According to Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild and Not So Wild Places, there are no poisonous look-alikes. Snip away!
Step Two: Wash Wash Wash
You would be surprised at how many little critters hide on dandelion leaves. Wash them thoroughly in cold water.
Step Three: Cook
Now here’s where you have to make a decision. It is very likely the batch of dandelions you just picked is the bitter kind, no matter how young the leaves or what time of year you picked them. Imagine biting into an aspirin. It’s worse.
One way the old timers took the bitter out, was to cook it in bacon fat – saute style. The fat apparently masks your taste buds, keeping the bitter away. Another way is to boil them and add sugar. And another way is to boil, drain, and repeat until the bitterness is gone. Unfortunately, every time you boil the greens, they lose some vitamin content. Cooking in fat would reduce the vitamin leaching, but would add… fat! You’re going to have to decide which route to go yourself. I kinda sorta did all three.
I put the uncut leaves (not cutting them also helps keep the vitamins in, or so goes the thought) in a pot of boiling water with some bacon fat and sugar. After boiling for five minutes I tasted them and did a yucky dance. I drained the water off and repeated. By that time the rest of dinner was ready, so I decided it was done. Looking back, this may have been a mistake.
Step Four: Chew and Swallow
The trick to getting your kids to try dandelions is to offer them money. I started at offering 50 cents to any kid who could swallow a bite. They countered at $1.00. We settled at 75 cents.
So we dished up our ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, and rolls (for those who aren’t gluten free), and then the dandelions. They were so pretty! So green! So tender! So bitter! You may have to be starving to eat them. Shawl optional.
But I’m proud to say all three kids ate their dandelions. Husband opted out. 75 cents wasn’t worth it to him. I’m not sure $10 would have done the trick. And I ate mine, too, although I had to drown them in butter and wash them down with several bites of ham. I might as well have sauteed them in bacon fat. In fact, next time that’s what I’m going to do.
But we did it! We ate dandelions from our yard. How cool is that?
I also found read in my book that we can eat our birch trees. And chickweed. And clover. I’m going to have fun eating my yard this summer. Which reminds me, I’d better start saving my change. The cost of bribery is likely to go up.