Dandelions: our maligned golden treasure

IN an attempt to familiarise myself a little better with this week’s in-season produce, I went out into the uncultivated dumping ground at the bottom of my garden to find every gardener’s worst nightmare – dandelions.

IN an attempt to familiarise myself a little better with this week’s in-season produce, I went out into the uncultivated dumping ground at the bottom of my garden to find every gardener’s worst nightmare – dandelions.

landscape: dandelion salad

I have to assure my neighbours that the aforementioned dumping ground will soon be sent to the tip. Honest!

It’s the leaves of a dandelion that are the edible part, so I munched my way into one. It was a little more bitter than I had expected. It reminded me of sorrel, which I used to eat lots of when I was little.

I can remember the look of horror on my grandma’s face when she came to visit once when I was about four and discovered me in a field stuffing my face with green leaves. “It’s all right, grandma, it’s only sorrel,” I said.

Dandelion leaves will not be to everyone’s taste. But they are certainly worth a try, especially in a recipe rather than on their own. They have some very good medicinal qualities too. In fact, the leaves, roots and flowers of dandelions have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.

They are used most notably for liver detoxification so if, like me, you like the odd glass or two of wine, then experimenting with dandelions may be a good idea. They are also well known as a diuretic and are used to reduce inflammation. Dandelions tend to grow in the places you don’t want them to, the middle of the lawn being a prime example. This is because they like disturbed habitats.

My lawn, if you can call it that, was awash with dandelions when I first moved into my house, and I had to dig very deep to get the roots out. If you just snap the weed, rather than dig out its roots, it will come back stronger.

You won’t have any trouble finding dandelion leaves to try in this week’s recipe – they like sunny open places. You can also find dandelion leaves for sale at farmers’ markets these days.

When picking your dandelion leaves, go for the broadest ones from the youngest plants. The nearer the plant gets to flowering, the more bitter they become.

Dandelion leaves are great in salads, sautéed or steamed, and the taste can be compared to chicory and endive. You can also use the flowers in salads, to make wine or even fry them in batter to make fritters.

THIS week, Jim Stevens, the National Trust’s catering operations manager, offers up this simple salad recipe using dandelion leaves.

1lb young dandelion leaves

2tbsp white wine

Salt and pepper to taste

1 clove garlic, minced

4 slices bacon, chopped

2 small onions, diced

2tbsp olive oil

Wash and clean the dandelions (as you would lettuce) and drain thoroughly. Chill in a fridge. Mince or very finely chop the clove of garlic. Coarsely chop the bacon (approximately 2cm square) and fry it until crisp.

Before serving, add the wine to the bacon dripping and heat.

Place the dandelion leaves, onion, garlic and salt and pepper in a large salad bowl. Add the oil and toss lightly.

Add the hot wine mixture and toss. Garnish with the bacon bits and serve immediately.

To make a more substantial meal, why not try adding the following optional extras?

2 hard boiled eggs, sliced

2 medium sized potatoes, boiled, drained and cubed (can be added hot or cold)

Alternatively, to reduce the slight bitterness associated with dandelions, cook with sweet vegetables such as sliced carrots, parsnips or sweet peppers.

:: FOOD FACT

Dandelions are important for bees. They were initially introduced into the American Midwest from Europe to provide a good source of pollen and nectar for honeybees in early spring. Now, a dandelion flowering is a good indication that the honeybee season is starting.

:: DANDELION PRODUCTS

Fentimans, a Hexham company famous for its traditional botanical drinks using recipes more than 100 years old, makes a lovely dandelion and burdock.

Otherwise, I’m yet to find a restaurant in the region with dandelions on the menu. The best thing to do is get yourself out into a sunny field and pick your own.

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