Tuesday, April 30, 2013

If You Can't Beat It, Eat It: Dandelions

By Christina Georgiou

Recently, there's been a lot of attention in Easton being given to the idea of urban gardening, particularly to grow healthier food, and also to the environmental detriments of invasive plant species in the local area.

The idea that the city is a "food desert" has also been floated around a bit, though technically there is no neighborhood that strictly qualifies as one. (To be considered a true "food desert" there needs to be a lack of a dedicated grocery store in a two-mile radius. While it's true three out of four of Easton's neighborhoods don't have a supermarket and it would be a much better thing if they did, all four neighborhoods are within the two-mile reach of one.)

While we are definitely supportive of urban gardening and growing food, favor native plants over invasive ones, and would very much like to see more healthy (and more affordable) foods sold in neighborhood stores, there's one idea that we think is a bit neglected--what already is available and what to do with it.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting a few edible, healthy plants you may not have noticed  (or just call "weeds") that grow all around the Easton area...

These happy dandelions have no idea they're about to
become dinner.
Dandelions are probably the one plant everyone, regardless of their level of botanical expertise, can identify on sight and even at a distance. They're also one of those things that pretty much everyone has an opinion on.

Kids usually like them because it's one flower they can pick without getting into trouble, not to mention it's fun to blow the seeds and make`a wish.

Those that are obsessed about their lawns are usually more of the opinion that dandelions were sent by the devil specifically to vex them and ruin their otherwise perfect carpets of green.

It's true that dandlions are an invasive plant, though no more so than those surburban lawns, which are almost exclusively made up of non-native grasses themselves.

Like the majority of invasive plants, dandelions were brought to North America's shores deliberately--many times over a couple of centuries, in fact, by a number of different groups of immigrants who brought the plant along to grow in their gardens for both the tasty greens and also for the plant's medicinal qualities.

Those with gourmet tastes know that buying dandelion greens and roots are pricy, if you can find them at all.

But this time of year, dandelions are everywhere, free for the taking. And, if you know what to do with them, they're delicious. 

A bit of foraged bounty: baby dandelion leaves, dandelion
flowers, both whole and just the centers, which will be made
into tea, syrup, and wine. Wild onion grass, far left, added
a bit of extra flavor to dandelion fritters.
Most foraging guides suggest the baby leaves are best picked before the dandelions bloom, before they pick up a too-bitter flavor, and they're probably correct. But I found this past weekend that in areas with many dandelions, there are still plenty of baby leaves out there.

Baby leaves make a very tasty salad, either by themselves or mixed with other greens, like a spring lettuce mix--no fancy prep needed. Just pick and rinse. Toss a bowlful with olive oil, lemon juice and sprinkle with a dash salt and pepper, and you're good to go. Or do it with a nice vinagrette, if you're so inclined.

Dandelion greens are highly nutritious, packed with more vitamins and phytonutrients than anything you'll find in the produce aisle of the supermarket. Folate, magnesium, phosphorus and copper, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, calcium, iron, potassium and manganese all come packed in those awesome little leaves. They're also a very good source of dietary fiber and have a number of other reported health benefits.

A cup of the raw greens only contains 25 calories, too, so feel free to indulge and have two or three.

Oddly enough, a bowl of raw baby dandelion greens is actually quite satisfying. There's a theory out there that many of the people that are overweight and/or obese because they're actually malnourished from eating a processed food diet, and as a result, their bodies are desperately trying to compensate by sending signals they need more food to get more of the lacking nutrients. From what I've experienced in the last couple of days, with a dandelion salad being more than sufficient for lunch, I have to wonder if it's not true.

Baby dandelion greens, with olive oil, lemon juice and a tiny
bit of sea salt. Yum! Looks like the kind of salad you'd pay
a pretty penny for in a pricy gourmet restaurant, doesn't it?
If you find that it's past the season for baby greens, the more mature ones are quite good steamed or boiled, much like you'd prepare spinach. Later in the season, doing a quick boil, then draining the leaves, and doing a second quick boil again should remove the intense bitterness without losing all the nutritious goodness dandelion plants have to offer.

Serve cooked dandelion greens with a little chopped garlic, lemon juice, and/or some butter or olive oil. Again, it's quite delicious.

While dandelion flowers are most often associated with making wine (which I've done in past years, and plan to again this year), they can also be brewed into a very nice tea, which I personally usually enjoy with a bit of honey, iced.

Dandelion syrup, which I haven't tried yet, is also apparently a classic and easy to prepare.

But the most appealing recipe for dandelion flowers I've found so far is dandelion flower fritters!

I just discovered this concept, and having tried my own variation based off of several different recipe versions this past weekend, I can vouch that they are really, really awesome, and nothing like what you might imagine either.

Dandelion fritters may be healthy, but they're not at all reminiscent of "health food." They taste quite sinful, actually, but still carry all the good stuff that dandelions have to offer in the way of nutritional goodness.

The prep is quite simple and easy--if you can make pancakes, you can make dandelion fritters. If you've got kids, I'd imagine they'll not only enjoy these as much as adults, but they'd probably love to help out with the gathering too.

Gather a mixing bowl full of dandelion flowers, whole, just the tops with the stems removed, and give them a good rinsing. No need to dry them off, just shake off the excess water--a colander works well. (Actually, you can even just gather them into a collander in the first place...) Big flowers are easier to fry up than little ones.

Dandelion flower fritters in the making...
For the batter, mix together one cup of flour with one egg and a cup of milk.

For a savory flavor, add some onion and/or garlic powder to the batter, or while you're out getting the dandelions, pull a few young strands of onion grass and chop it up finely before mixing it into the batter.

Take each flower and dip it face down into the batter. Give it a twirl to get some batter between all those tiny petals.

Drop each flower onto a hot lightly oiled griddle or frying pan for about 2-3 minutes. When lightly browned, turn each flower over (a fork works best), and cook the other side too.

Dandelion fritters are amazingly yummy!
For a sweet breakfast or dessert version, you can sprinkle the plain version of the fritters lightly with confectioner's sugar. If you've gone for the savory version, a tiny bit of sea salt brings out the flavor nuances. 

Eat immediately. On the off-chance there are any left, they reheat in a toaster oven or conventional oven easily.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dandelions. The roots are commonly dried and brewed into a healthy coffee substitute, and there are many other recipes out there for the rest of the plant too.

If you have a family or favorite recipe for dandelions, please share it with us in the comments! We'd love to know about it.

A field of dandelions that sits near the Bushkill Creek in the City of Easton.
Foraging for dandelions and other edible plants is not only fun, but it's free!

Still, there are some very important things to keep in mind when foraging for edibles:

  • Make sure the area you pull from hasn't been treated with herbicides and pesticides. If you have a service like ChemLawn, eating the weeds from your property is a very bad idea. And while it's true that modern farming makes use of some of the same chemicals, herbicide and pesticide use in residential areas is many times more per acre than farmers use on crops.   It takes a number of years of non-use before it's safe to eat plants in areas heavily treated with these chemicals. That said, other than pesticides/herbicides applied by local residents themselves, urban Easton's backyards seem to be mostly free of this problem.
  • Many public spaces, such as parks, are treated with pesticides and herbicides, and plants picked directly from roadsides carry the risk of lead, road salt, petrochemicals, and other extremely unhealthy things. Additionally, some roadway edges in the local area are treated with herbicides by PennDOT to help keep them clear of obscuring vegetation. Sites on or near old abandoned industrial properties are not usually a good idea either--poisons like PCBs may well lurk in the soil and be carried into the plants. Be sure the area you're picking from is free from such hazards. Areas along protected waterways, nature trails, abandoned fields, and woodland areas are usually a safe bet.
  • Respect public laws and private property. While it's very rare anyone has any objections to someone picking their unwanted plants, particularly problematic invasive ones, they very likely will have objections to a stranger unexpectedly hanging around their house or on their lawn without permission. However, if you ask nicely and explain what you're doing in advance, a homeowner or resident may well give their blessing to your endeavor. And if someone shows up and asks you to leave, apologize and do so immediately.

1 comment:

  1. Many apologies, I accidentally momentarily deleted this post and the comments with it. The article has obviously been reposted, but I couldn't recover the comments directly.

    However, here they are:

    Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "If You Can't Beat It, Eat It: Dandelions":

    Now I know what you are talking about, because someone cooks with cast iron skillets. A sign of a great cook!

    (Posted by Anonymous to The Easton Eccentric at April 30, 2013 at 1:15 PM)

    Nice article. I have all edibles in my window boxes and planters here in downtown Easton!

    (Posted by AliciaRamboWozniak to The Easton Eccentric at April 30, 2013 at 2:00 PM)