Clippings: Dandelions welcome at my dinner table
As the last snowfall of the winter of 2015-2016 recedes into memory, it feels like spring has truly arrived. Even before that last snow — gosh, only a little more than two weeks ago — me and my family were getting the lawn cleared of its winter debris and I even puttered around in the garden the weekend before that snow. I got my peas in the ground then.
What? You’re wondering why I didn’t get my peas in the ground until the last full weekend of April? Well, I haven’t got my peas in the ground anytime during the past two years, so the fact that I got two different varieties planted — and some spinach! — before Memorial Day put me way ahead of where I usually am.
And we’ve had some gorgeous days. Blue skies, a little wind to dry the clothes on the line, not too warm nor too many flying bugs.
But the best thing about the spring so far may be the dandelions. Even though I grew up in American suburbia, where the immaculately manicured lawns stretch off as far as the eye can see and one is taught to consider dandelions invaders that mar the landscape, I love dandelions. Sure, I love the happy yellow of flower, which is interesting to look upon both as a single blossom and as a field full of blossoms. And the leaves with their “tooth of a lion” jaggedy edges possess a beauty in their own way.
But what I really love about dandelions is not looking at them — it is eating them. In the spring, after a season of second- and third-rate greens that come to us from thousands of miles away with most of their character and nutrients sapped by the long journey, I crave the first green leaves of the dandelion plant. Absentmindedly I loiter in the yard crouching to pick a few dandelion leaves and pop them in my mouth; then I take a few steps, crouch, and pop a bigger handful.
It’s no wonder.
One cup of cooked dandelions has more calcium than a cup of cottage cheese, according to nutritionist Jenny Brewer, who hosts the “Green Tea and Honey” radio show with Dr. Aimee Shunny. They say that dandelions are rich in iron; Vitamins B, C and E; some minerals; and dietary fiber. As such, the noble plant promotes liver function, improves blood sugar control, helps clean intestines and promotes the immune system in the gut. Somehow, I think, my body knows that dandelions are good for me and I truly crave them. It’s not that my mouth waters when I see this plant, but when I taste it I just have to reach for more.
Dandelion greens are, no doubt, bitter. But I think the bitterness balances out the overly sweet and salty diet that most of us consume. In a cooking podcast I listened to, travel writer Zora O’Neill paired dandelions with a fatty meatloaf, which she says acts as a tonic to the greasy dish.
I think I first considered eating a dandelion green after I read Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s 1887 short story “A Mistaken Charity,” a tale of two desperately poor old spinster sisters that opens with the deaf sister crawling about the front yard of a rundown cottage gathering in her apron a “mess” of dandelions to eat as dinner. The image of the tough old birds subsisting on such plain and humble fare struck a chord in me. Initially I ate it raw, like I assumed the weird sisters did. Then I got a foraging book that suggested boiling the dandelion greens. So I tried that, along with boiled curly dock — another spring green that I find much less attractive than dandelions. The boiled dandelions were good with melted butter and salt, but I still prefer eating them raw (they would also be good thrown — literally, if you like — into a casserole or soup to add a spot of color as well as taste and nutrients).
There’s plenty about the dandelion that I don’t fully appreciate. The plant that we see grows, as any suburban lawn snob will tell you, from a long tap root that must be entirely removed from the soil to prevent regrowth. Now I’ve pulled plenty of these tap roots, but I’ve never got around to eating them. That is probably because you have to do something to them first — they say that roasting the root and then grinding it into a powder that can be brewed as a coffee substitute is a good option. I’m a little too lazy and I like real coffee a little too much, so I haven’t tried that yet; but I may.
On top of the root but still below the ground is a crunchy part of the plant called a crown, which, I’m told, can be chopped and thrown into a salad (like jicama or a mild hakurei turnip) or, apparently, cooked like a carrot. The flowers, of course, can be pressed to make wine, which my father-in-law did long before I came into the picture. The author of my foraging book warns that dandelion wine is very potent; I wonder if he found it so intoxicating because he only drank it when he was dehydrated from tromping all day through hedgerows and ditches along rural routes.
I only eat the dandelions from my own yard, or maybe from the yard of someone I know well. I don’t use herbicides on my lawn, but plenty of people do. It would be a shame to waste all of the healthful qualities of dandelions by falling over dead from chemical poisoning.
Dandelion love has a long tradition. According to Greek legend, Athenian King Theseus ate a dandelion salad after killing the Minotaur (this tidbit came from — I kid you not — the Weed Science Society of America). Well, Theseus was not a god, but he was a pretty sharp fellow, so if dandelion was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
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