For most people in the USA – and increasingly in other Western countries -- buying a home means buying a yard, which means commencing a lifelong war on dandelions. Television commercials, magazines and billboards promise and advertise all manner of poison sprays, tools and even teams of men to rid your area of these useful flowers, promising to make the space around your home as blank and featureless as Astro-turf.
Such obsessions appeared quite recently; no one, as far as I know, hated dandelions until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the appearance of a world-changing development - the suburb. Before the mid-1800s, “lawns” usually referred to sporting fields or sheep meadows; most people didn’t need one, as they were farmers already surrounded by fields. The Industrial Revolution, though, created a newly prosperous class who wanted homes in the country, and railroads allowed them to commute – a new concept – to their businesses in the city. Rolling in new wealth but lacking Old World respectability, most modeled their miniature fiefdoms after the estates of English lords, right down to the manicured fields.
By 1921, a delightfully hysterical book called “A Lawn Without Dandelions” reported that homeowners across America were trying make their grounds as geometric and seamless as that of their business rivals down the street, and dandelions had become their chief nemesis. Calling the dandelions the “Yellow Peril” and challenging homeowners to a “Survival of the Fittest,” the pamphlet said the job of getting rid of them was “not for a boy, or for Mr. Shiftless, but for a he-man with all his senses alert.” Almost a century later, many homeowners feel the same.
Not every homeowner has a lawn, of course - a few suburbanites I know have turned some of their property into food gardens, turning both grass and dandelions alike into tomatoes and collards. Good for them – but the dandelions can also be food, and growing uncultivated in places you can’t easily plant crops. Rather than fight them, you could make them work for you.
Unlike many wild foods that take a long search, dandelions are found in almost every wood and meadow. And while many wild plants require special training to identify and discriminate from similar-looking poisonous plants, dandelions can be readily identified by every schoolchild. When my daughter was little I would occupy her by bidding her to gather baskets of dandelions for me to play with in the kitchen, promising her a penny for every flower plucked.
In theory, the whole plant is edible, but new green leaves are best for salads, before they form their distinctive saw-tooth shape (“lion-teeth” or in French, dent-de-lion). After that, they are still edible but quite bitter. They wilt quickly, so gather as many as you can and then drop them into cold water to keep them crisp.
Even the young leaves have a slight bitter flavour, but if that bothers you mix them with lettuce or corn salad, or other edible weeds like fat hen, jack-by-the-hedge, linden, hawthorn shoots, daisies and clover. (All plants and seasons refer to our home in Ireland specifically, but should generally hold for most temperate zones.)
If you want a strongly flavored dressing to offset the unfamiliar dandelion taste, start with homemade yogurt and mix in vegetable stock, herbs, cayenne pepper, sesame oil and lemon juice. You could also make the dandelions more palatable by mixing them with apples and nuts, or in an egg salad or potato salad.
Leaves could be picked a bit older if they are to be cooked, either sautéed into a dish like spinach or mixed into scrambled eggs or quiche. Very mature leaves should probably not be eaten except in an emergency. Of course, only pick dandelions from land you know has not been treated with pesticides, and away from any car traffic.
You can also try pickling the leaves, either in a salt brine or in a sugar-and-vinegar solution. Many methods of pickling call for pouring hot water over vegetables, but cold-pickling methods might work better for the more delicate dandelion leaves.
I have heard of some people using dandelion leaves to make kim chi. Kim chi is usually made by shredding cabbage and adding salt – say, 50 millilitres per cabbage mixed with water to create a brine– mixing it with the shredded leaves, and letting it sit for a few hours. Then, when the leaves have lightly pickled, mix them with hot pepper, minced garlic, shredded ginger and scallions. Do this with dandelion leaves instead, and see how it goes.
I cut the yellow flowers and make them into fritters. After you have gathered and washed a large bowl of flowers, cut off the base where the threadlike petals inside turn white. Take the yellow part and drop it into a batter made from equal parts flour and milk. Mix the flowers in until it is thick, perhaps with some oats for texture or some chives or other herbs for flavour. Fry the mixture like a pancake until golden brown on both sides. These are all generalized recipes, by the way - amounts and details can vary according to your circumstances or taste.
Some people mix the flowers with apple peelings, orange zest, into dandelion jam, and dandelion roots can be finely chopped and stir-fried or roasted and ground into a coffee substitute.
You can also make dandelion flowers into wine, in this sample recipe: Put three litres of open yellow flowers into a large pot and pour four litres of boiling water over them. Cover the crock with cheesecloth and let it sit at room temperature for three days. Then squeeze all the juice out of the flowers, throw them away and save the liquid.
Put the liquid into a big pot and add 1.5 litres of sugar, three lemons – halved and squeezed, juice and flesh together – and three oranges chopped and squeezed the same way. Alternately, I used 100 ml of lemon juice last time and 50g of grated ginger, and that gave it a nice tang.
Boil the resulting mixture for 30 minutes with a top on the pot, then turn off the stove and let cool. When it cools to blood temperature, add yeast, cover and let sit for two weeks or until it stops bubbling. Filter through cheesecloth or a coffee strainer into a carboy, and let ferment for a few months.
In short, dandelions yield an amazing variety of recipes, and homeowners spend millions every year ridding their property of one of the few useful plants that grow there unbidden. Considering the hard work most of us put into growing our own food, we would be foolish to purge our land of the food that is simply handed to us for free.