One man’s pesky garden weed is another man’s bitter salad green. Although foraging might seem daunting, you don’t have to memorize endless plant identifications. Simply look right under your nose—and, in this case, at those spindly yellow petals that colored your childhood.
Dandelions grow worldwide and, in most places, bloom most heavily in the spring. They’re edible in their entirety—root, greens, flower, and all—and can provide a number of health benefits, like reducing inflammation or clarifying the skin. The sunshine-hued ligules, with their honey-like flavor, are a perfect complement to any sweet recipe, while the bitter greens offer a natural digestive aid. The root, once roasted, can even mimic the flavor of coffee.
Colleen Codekas has gathered and incorporated dandelions into recipes for years. She got into searching for edible goods in the wilderness at Yosemite National Park, where she worked for 10 years and learned how to identify everything from elderberry to yarrow. On her website Grow Forage Cook Ferment she guides a community of readers through foraging, wildcrafting, regenerative gardening, and otherwise connecting with the land.
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Dandelions are excellent starting points for beginner foragers, but Codekas says there are a few things to keep in mind. First, beware of look-alikes, like Cat’s Ear. “A good way to know is by looking at the stem. Dandelions have hollow, single stems, whereas Cat’s Ears don’t have hollow stems, and they’ll actually branch,” she says. But you don’t have to worry too much: Cat’s Ear is non-toxic and edible, too.
When it comes to choosing where to forage your dandelions, Codekas suggests sticking to your own yard, a friend’s yard, or a nearby park. “It’s a little tricky because if you’re foraging in parks or public areas, you don’t know if the dandelions have been sprayed, or if dogs have been using them for the bathroom,” she says. “You also want to be wary of roadside picking because of road runoff.” To make things easier, Codekas recommends contacting your local park department and asking them directly about their spraying practices.
If you’re going after the blossoms, Codekas says the best time to forage is in the morning. “That’s when they’ll have first opened. Each individual flower will only stay open for a day or two,” she explains. “If they formed a lot of dew overnight, sometimes I’ll wait until late morning so that some of it can dry off.” But you can always just blot the flowers with a paper towel, or let them sit out for a few hours. “You can’t really dry them totally, though, because they’ll end up turning to puffs,” Codekas adds.
The roots will always be quite dirty, so you’ll want to run them under water or soak for an hour or so to loosen them up. Once they’re chopped into pieces, you can roast the roots for a short amount of time. Use them right away or let them sit in the oven until they’re dried and store for later.
Now it’s time to get creative. Codekas shares her favorite ideas for making use of every part of the plant, from dandelion green pesto to dandelion root muffins.
You could use dandelion greens like you would any other salad green, but you might want to complement them with a less-bitter variety. “Some people like to cook the greens, too. Just simple sauté with olive oil, salt and garlic,” Codekas says.
She loves to use the greens in place of basil when making homemade pesto. Add the greens, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil to a food processor, blend until smooth, then add some parmesan. Codekas also likes to squeeze in some lemon juice. “I find it adds some brightness that offsets a little bit of that bitterness.”
If you’re looking to keep things sweet, make sure to pick apart the petals. “Any of the green parts of the plant are going to have a bitterness,” Codekas cautions, so whether or not you use the flower head in its entirety will depend on the recipe. Perhaps the most popular approach is adding dandelion petals to shortbread cookies or cupcakes. “It’s kind of fun this time of year when you can really get a lot of them,” Codekas says.
But she also uses whole flower heads to make an infused dandelion vinegar, which takes on the plant’s sweet and bitter qualities. All you have to do is pour white vinegar over the dandelion heads in a pint size jar, allowing it to sit for at least a week. Once it’s ready, you can incorporate it into salad dressings, or enjoy it on its own.
To make a vitamin-rich tea, you can pour boiling water over four or five flower heads, let them steep for a few minutes, strain, and add honey to taste. But Codekas’ favorite way to use the flower is by making an old-fashioned dandelion mead, or honey wine. Sticking to one gallon batches, she adds dandelion flower tea, honey, and brewing yeast into a jug, snaps on an airtight lid, and ferments it for weeks. When it’s ready, simply strain it out, bottle it, let it sit, and enjoy.
While you can certainly pick the root in the spring, Codekas likes to save this activity for the fall, after the root has stored up all its nutrients throughout the summer. “Roasted dandelion root is a really good substitute for coffee, especially for people that miss that flavor, but don’t want to have any caffeine,” she says.
While it might seem like the root might be hard to work with, it’s only slightly harder than a potato, and can be cut using a standard kitchen knife. To make the roasted dandelion coffee, you can roast the chopped roots light or dark, depending on your preference, and then boil them in water to extract the flavor. “I include chicory root as well, which has a similar flavor profile,” she says. For a sweet treat, you can even use dandelion root coffee to make healthy muffins.
Codekas also likes to make her own dandelion root bitters, which involves adding the roots, other flavorings like orange peel and ginger, and a neutral alcohol like vodka into a jar and letting it sit for a few weeks. Sip it on its own, or add to a fancy cocktail.
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