wild foods feast, part 1: intro + dandelion!

i’ve been devoting a lot of time and energy lately to the natural motherhood series, and while i’m going to be continuing that as normal, i wanted to branch out and offer something that would appeal to the un-pregnant majority (a complete assumption) of my readership.  i was thinking about what i could add to my current series, which include the wheel of the year, natural motherhood, and herbal preparations, and my husband ingeniously suggested a series on wild edibles.  yum yum!

no, no, NO!

about once a week, i’m going to offer a post on a different wild food.  some are found all over, some are area specific, and most of them are things that we consider to be weeds (obviously, there are no trips to the grocery store involved!).  my goals here are simple:  i want to get you thinking about “pesky weeds” in a whole new way, i want to give you some basic botany and plant identification skills, and i want to share with you some surprisingly tasty recipes.  keep reading and, believe it or not, this time next year you’ll be ecstatic when your springtime yard fills up with weeds.  manicured lawns are dull—wild yards are a living salad!

a few general caveats before i begin—first and foremost, please make sure you know a plant before you eat it!  i will always provide a slew of pictures for each plant, but get yourself at least one good plant id guide to take with you on wild-harvesting jaunts.  a really great one is the golden guide (remember little golden books?) to wildflowers, which is arranged by plant families.  you can also get guides like audubon or peterson’s, which are arranged by color of the flower.

yes, yes, YES!

whatever you get, you should couple it with elpel’s botany in a day, a book that teaches you how to identify plant families based on shared characteristics.  it is crucial to positively identify your plants so that you won’t accidentally eat something poisonous.  poison hemlock, for example, looks an awful lot like wild carrot.  the plants that i’m going to be talking about are easy to identify, and if there’s ever a shady look-a-like, i’ll make sure you know.

there are several more things that i want to bring up when it comes to wild-harvesting.  first, please choose your harvesting spot wisely!  it always breaks my heart to see a huge stand of mullein stalks along interstate guardrails (a favorite mullein haunt) because i know i can’t feel good about harvesting it.  don’t harvest near roads, where constant pollution and oily, yucky runoff abound.  also, be sure that the areas where you wild-harvest are not chemically treated in any way.  don’t harvest from a treated lawn or from an area that appears to have been landscaped.  (also, beware of yards where dogs do what dogs do!)  and remember that it is illegal to pick wildflowers in a state park—don’t disturb purposefully preserved ecosystems!

so those are my thoughts on quality, but you also have to think about quantity.  when you do harvest, never take more than 25% of what’s around—you want to make sure that plenty of plants go to seed so that you’ll have plenty of wild food next year!  even though these plants are “weeds” they aren’t invincible.  harvest sustainably.

salad!

and perhaps most importantly, get other people involved in what you’re doing!  weed-eating is so much more fun with other folks!  have a wild foods potluck where each dish has to have at least one wild-harvested ingredient.  believe me, these are fun and folks really get creative!

so that’s my spiel on wild-harvesting.  i hope you enjoy this series of posts (which should last around 4 months or so) and please share this with your friends.  they’ll think you’re an absolute weirdo UNTIL they taste your rose honey and dandelion fritters!  then they’ll catch the wild foods fever too!  enjoy your harvest, with all its (free!) abundance.

and speaking of dandelions…here’s this week’s wild food!

dandelion

family—asteraceae (aster-AY-see-ay, aster or composite family)

genus—taraxacum (latinization of the arabic name for the plant)

species—officinale (plants with this species name have historically been used for medicine in europe)

a dandelion blossom---actually composed of many tiny flowers!

after the nuclear holocaust, there will be three things left:  roaches, twinkies, and dandelions.   people these days face off against this sunny yellow flower like gun-fighting cowboys—-grimace-faced in the high-noon sun, with a twitchy finger that’s just itching to grab the roundup from a belt-holster.  despite spending god-knows-how-much money on chemicals for their boring sea-of-blue-green lawns, mere humans will always lose against the dandelion.  mow it? it’s back the next day.  admit defeat and leave it?  one flower produces hundreds of seeds that, caught by the wind, will quickly infect your yard.  trying to pull it up? nope! you’ve been had by a six-inch taproot.  admit defeat.  embrace it.  then EAT IT!

a vascular plant

believe it or not, dandelions belong to the most highly evolved plant family on earth, the asteraceae or composite family.  other stars here include the daisy, the sunflower, the artichoke, and nearly 23,000 others—asteraceae is the largest family of vascular plants (plants that can move water and other materials throughout their interiors via gravity and other wonders of physics).   dandelions, like other asteraceae members, have disk-shaped composite heads.  they’re composite because, although they look like one multi-petaled flower, they are actually composed of hundreds of tiny, complete flowers.  this evolutionary adaptation allows them to be much more prolific than plants that rely on just one set of sex organs to reproduce.  pick up a dandelion in the puff-ball stage and blow.  see all of those seeds?  each one is  from an individual flower!

tansy---dont eat this DYC!

now one of the fun things about dandelions is that they belong to a sub-group within the asteraceae family that botanists lovingly refer to as the DYCs (damned yellow composites).  the frustration evident in the name stems (HA!) from the fact that that so many yellow composites exist that it can be maddening to tell them apart.  odds are, what you’ve called a dandelion over the years has probably been the real thing mixed with 2 or 3 look-a-likes.  (FYI—although some DYCs taste better than others, the only vaguely dandelion-ish thing that you shouldn’t eat is tansy.)

so here’s what you’re looking for in a true dandelion:

basal (at the base) rosette (whorled, low rose-shape)

1. leaves in a basal rosette that are anywhere from undivided to triangularly-lobed (dandelion= “dent de lion,” or lion’s teeth, for the often jagged or tooth-shaped leaves)

2.  a hollow stem with milky latex

3.  a single hairless and leafless stalk that does not branch (branching or furry stalks indicate another species in the DYC group)

NOT a dandelion!

4.  a yellow composite flower that eventually becomes a round white ball of achenes (single-seeded fruits)—each achene catches the breeze (or a wishful child’s breath) with a pappus of fine white hairs

so you’ve found your dandelions?  good!  here’s what you can do with them:

dandelion wine

if you find yourself with tons of dandelions, consider making this treat.  dandelion wine is sunshine in a bottle, especially over the long winter months.  this is one of the more involved ideas for dandelions, but it’s worth the time and effort.  enjoy this video by herbmentor featuring the fabulous rosalee de la foret:

dandelion coffee

thankfully this is no longer part of the american wartime experience, but throughout the history of our nation, food rationing has been the cause of much disgruntle-tude (disgruntability?).  luxury items are always the first to go:  chocolate, sugar, tobacco, coffee.  this last one was a particularly sore spot for southerners during the civil war, when blockades meant that there simply wasn’t any coffee to be had.  in their search for alternatives, confederate soldiers concocted all sorts of roasted root beverages.  most were made with chicory and dandelion root, and if you were particularly unlucky, this was cut with a great quantity of dirt.

roasted dandelion root

although the dirt must have been terrible, soldiers were really onto something with their use of roasted dandelion root “coffee.”  besides its caffeine pick-me-up, coffee is a bitter digestive aid.  a lot of folks think that the caffeine in coffee is what gets the bowels moving, but it’s actually the bitterness. (crash course in a&p ahead!) you see, when something bitter hits your stomach, it signals the liver to produce (and then the gallbladder to release) bile, the bitter substance that helps to break down fats, alkalizes stomach acid so that it won’t burn the small intestine, and kills bacteria that may be present in food.

dandy blend----good stuff!

when the body senses this release of bile (and therefore assumes that you’ve eaten something).  peristaltic action begin.  peristalsis is the the squeezing motion that your small intestine uses to move and extract nutrients from the partially digested food from your stomach.  basically, when anything bitter hits your belly, this chain reaction occurs—that’s why europeans still follow their meals (especially heavy, greasy ones) with bitters.  more bile = better breakdown of fats, higher production of stomach acid, and better digestive movement in general.

so back to dandelion.  if you’re interested in getting off coffee but retaining that lovely bitter stimulation, roasted dandelion root coffee is a much better way to go.  dandelion will love your liver without blowing your adrenals with too much stimulation.  you can look into “just-add-water” mixes like dandy blend, but you’ll get so much more enjoyment if you just go yank some weeds.  here’s a silly video by john gallagher of herbmentor on how to harvest roots and make roasted dandelion root coffee:

salad bitters

we really do demonize bitter in our culture!

i’ve already extolled the virtues of bitter food (something that we, as americans, don’t get nearly enough of), but you don’t have to yank and prepare roots to get the benefits.  dandelion leaves are very tasty and quite bitter, so they make a lovely addition to any salad.  we seem to privilege tasteless anemic lettuces these days, but most are pretty devoid of nutrition—they’re just fiber and water.  try adding wild greens to your diet, and don’t be scared off by the strong-tasting ones.  you’ll either love them or learn to love them, and if not, you’d be amazed what a great salad vinegar will do!

if you take a second to consider plant energetics (not nearly as woo-woo as it sounds) you can easily guess when the different parts of a plant are good for harvesting.  to figure out where a plant’s energy is, all you have to do is figure out what stage of its life-cycle it’s in.  for instance, in the early spring, most plants are expending a great deal of energy on their new shoots, making them storehouses of antioxidants and vitamins just there for the taking.  as the spring progresses, plants are busy sending up stems and making leaves—the leaves are important because the plant will have to gather a great deal of energy from the sun to be able to produce its flowers, and, if it’s lucky, its fruit and seeds.

once a plant begins to bloom, its leaves are still edible (in most cases—there are some exceptions) but the plant is not prioritizing them anymore so they may not be as tasty and as nutritionally rich.  blooms can be enjoyed in their own right, but you have a pretty short window of time to catch them before everything goes to seed.  when a plant drops its seeds, it begins to pull its energy back down to the root, storing it as starches and other compounds, so that the plant will be able to nourish itself for the next bloom.

also available commercially at whole foods!

so if you’re harvesting leaves, as in the case of salad greens, you’re best off picking the fresh new growth that springs up before the flowers open.  if flowers are already present (in the case of dandelions), you’ll want to pull the smaller, lighter, younger leaves for your salads (or better yet, sautee them with bacon grease and garlic!).  the large old leaves on the outside of the floret can be tough and very bitter.  if, as in the case of the coffee, you’re harvesting the roots, you’re best off identifying the plant as a dandelion when it blooms and then keeping an eye on it as it goes to seed.  after the plant has gone to seed (and all the way through the winter if you’re able), harvest the roots—bring a sharp trowel!

one last thing to mention about dandelion greens is that they, like the roots, are a great diuretic food, meaning that they help balance the water in your body.  the reason that dandelion greens are great is that they’re what’s known as a potassium-sparing diuretic.  they will help rid your body of excess fluid, but, unlike most diuretics, they won’t dump all of your body’s potassium.  low potassium is a recipe for bad muscle cramps!

dandelion fritters and pancakes

fried dandelion

here in the south, its a simple truth that folks will deep-fry anything that stands still long enough.  while a diet heavy in rich fried foods is indeed a no-no, incorportating some fried wild foods into a healthy diet can be a treat.  there are two easy ways to fry up some southern tastiness using dandelions—fritters and pancakes.

dandelion fritters

ingredients:

dandelion flowers (fully opened, gathered in the heat of the day, not in the dewy morning)
one egg
one cup of milk
one cup of flour (you can experiment with other milled grains as well)

step 1.  pick just the tops of your dandelions, not the stems

step 2. stir together your batter ingredients in a bowl (you may also add honey, maple syrup, sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, or whatever else you want)

step 3.  heat olive oil in a pan over medium

step 4.  holding the dandelions by their green bottoms, dip them into the batter, twirling to cover the blossom, and drop them into the hot oil.

step 5.  when blossoms are lightly browned, give them a flip and brown the other side.

you can make this a sweet or a savory treat based on what you add to it.  you can sprinkle them with powdered sugar or serve with syrup, or you can salt and serve with savory spices.  if you find it too bitter, bite the blossom off of the green bit and discard it as you would a stem.

dandelion pancakes

for added flowery-ness, pour batter in the shape of a flower first and then fill it in after a few seconds.

this is easy enough that it doesn’t need a real recipe.  all you have to do is pull the yellow petals off of the green base and then add them (quantity to taste) to pancake batter.  kids love this one because it makes beautiful pancakes flecked with bright yellow.  in addition to adding the petals to the batter, you can sprinkle extras on the top of the cake before you flip it.  as a side note, you can add the separated petals to just about any food.  although the medicinal and nutritional benefit of the petals is not as high as that of the leaves or roots, it’s still a vitamin-packed boost for the liver and kidneys.

there are a million recipes out there for dandelion foods—this is just the tip of the iceberg.  you can check out online sources, but the great dandelion cookbook is a good place to start.  this pesky weed is truly a versatile food.  it is a great source of potassum, vitamin a, vitamin c, calcium, and iron, and the leaves are tremendously anti-inflamatory—great for folks with arthritis, asthma, acne, inflammatory bowel syndromes, or any other inflammation-related disorders.

please continue to read on for tons of other wild food profiles (roughly one a week).  it’s best if you read them in order because a lot of the anatomical and botanical information will build on things that i’ve talked about previously.  some profiles will be information-heavy (like this one) and some will be sort and sweet.  all be full of delightful and suprising recipes that will hopefully change the way you look at weeds.

blessings!

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