Thursday, April 4, 2013

“D” is for Dandelions

320px-DandelionsYea! It’s finally spring and you’re on your way out to water the grass and enjoy the beautiful colors: grass green, new leaf green, white and pink, purple and blue, yellow and…YELLOW?! What are those little yellow flowers? Are they…naw! They can’t be… A closer look brings out an unhappy shriek: they are! Those nasty, yellow, DANDELIONS. Quick! get the trowel and dig them up before they spread. But wait! Are they really that dreadful? That lovely yellow makes such a pretty contrast to the green grass, and the entire plant can be used in a variety of ways.

I love dandelions. My parents always left a few for us children so that we could have the privilege of blowing the little seed parachutes, but when I grew up and moved to Italy, I discovered even better reasons to not completely dig up those pretty plants. They not only grow in the middle of fields there, but also grow in crevices between the rocks in walls. I remember walking through some cornfields in Switzerland one day in June; looking down I was amazed to see giant dandelion plants. My husband explained to me that the ones that were in the field were exactly the same as the much smaller ones that were found in most other places around the world.

I also discovered that its name came from the Italian name, Dente di Leone, which means lion’s tooth because of the jagged leaves that resemble teeth and the shaggy yellow flowers that resemble a mane surrounding a lion’s face. With a little bit of imagination, you can actually see how it got its name. Its official name is Taraxacum, and it is a member of the Asteraceae family. Like broccoli or Queen Anne’s Lace, it is composed of tiny flowers (florets) grouped together. There are a number of other plants that resemble the dandelion, including chicory, which is also known for its medicinal and culinary properties.

The most commonly used part of the dandelion is the plant itself, before the flowers have begun to appear. The plant can be boiled and used as greens; they need to be washed very carefully, because they do retain a certain amount of soil that needs to be removed before they can be eaten. They may also need to be parboiled for about 5 minutes because they can be extremely bitter. After the parboil, they should be boiled for at least another hour or until they are tender. After they have boiled, pour olive oil over them and add salt to taste. I recommend NOT using extra-virgin olive oil, because it tends to be bitter, and dandelion greens are already bitter enough on their own. In Italy, we would either eat it as described, or else we would sauté it slightly in a small amount of olive oil with crushed fresh garlic and a light sprinkling of pepperoncino. The latter method is also very tasty, as sautéing tends to minimize the bitterness. If you can handle the bitter, the uncooked leaves can also be used in salads; if not they can be parboiled for 5 minutes.

The heads can also be used in a variety of ways. One very interesting way is to take the buds – before they start to open – and preserve them under salt. These can be used in the same manner as capers. The open flowers can be as a garnish with steak or omelets or even in sandwiches. Just use your imagination. I even had a recipe (which, unfortunately, I never used) for making dandelion jelly. Perhaps the most famous use, at least in the United States, is for making dandelion wine.

Even the roots can be used. If roasted and ground, they make an excellent caffeine-free substitute for coffee; in my opinion the taste is much smoother and less bitter than real coffee. The root is also one of the main ingredients in root beer.

Dandelions are a rich source for many vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A,C, and K and calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. Because of their calcium and iron content, they are an excellent remedy for people who have low iron levels—the calcium allows them to absorb vitamin D, which is essential for the body’s ability to utilize the iron content. It is a perfect diuretic, also, because it replenishes the potassium that is normally eliminated by the body during diuresis. It also helps the body eliminate toxins that have built up during the winter.

And, to top it all off, leave it in your grass—because of the taproot’s ability to bring up important nutrients from deeper soil that short rooted plants – such as grass – cannot reach on their own, it actually aids these plants to grow better. It also gives off an important gas that enables fruit to reach maturation.

So, the next time you walk out the door, instead of screaming, “OH NO!” You can say “HURRAY!” when you see the sunny little faces of the dandelion plants.