Category Archives: dandelions

Wild Greens Workshop

heyday_farm2It’s that time again for those of us on the West Coast. The woods and meadows are waking up. Wild greens—tasty, nutritious, free—decorate the woods and forest fringes.

To ring in the spring harvest, I’ll be teaching a foraging and cooking workshop at Heyday Farm on Bainbridge Island on March 27, with a focus on wild spring greens, especially stinging nettles. As I’ve said here before, nettles are the backbone of my spring foraging. I use nettles in soups, pastas, and sauces, and I put up large quantities of nettle pesto to have on hand year-round.

At Heyday, we’ll spend the morning foraging in the woods around the farm, learning about and harvesting what’s in season. Back at the historic Heyday Farm kitchen and farmhouse, we’ll learn several ways to pair and prepare our catch. The class will include a satisfying lunch. Cost is $110. Please sign up through Bainbridge Island Parks and Recreation, or by calling (206) 842-2306.

Backyard Udon Stir-fry

Weeded the garden yesterday. Then cooked up the weeds for lunch.

February and March are strange months in the Pacific Northwest. It’s often the best skiing of the year in the mountains, but those same storms that dump powder at elevation (or Cascade concrete, as the case may be) are nourishing the first flush of spring greens down in the valley.


Indeed. This is the time to start looking for fresh wild greens on the West Coast, especially the highly nutritious weeds—when they’ve just emerged. Right now California is kicking out commercial quantities of stinging nettles, watercress, and—soon—fiddleheads, and my own stomping grounds to the north around Puget Sound are not far behind. In fact, this is the time I usually start filling my larder with the first (and best) stinging nettles of the year, which present an obvious green target against the otherwise drab colors of a forest floor still trying to shake off winter. Dandelions are at their best now, too, before budding; watercress is on the rebound; and bittercress is another favorite.

If you’re hesitant to include backyard weeds in your menu, try this simple recipe, which is sort of like disguising a dog pill in a little ball of hamburger. Who doesn’t love a big bowl of stir-fried noodles with bright toppings? Wild greens add a distinctive and healthy bite to a dish already brimming with flavors. For the dish pictured, I used dandelion greens and watercress.

A colorful, heaping bowl of noodles with a variety of good toppings is so appealing to me, and it can be even easier to put something interesting together if you have a few ingredients ready to go, for instance pickled fiddleheads or a Tupperware full of five-spice beef short ribs (I make the ribs on Sunday and put them in the fridge for just such a weekday purpose). A fried or poached egg is another easy topping.

Fresh udon can be purchased at many Asian markets, and the pre-packaged stuff (dried or frozen) is available at many conventional grocery stores. Cook the udon according to the instructions and make sure to rinse with cold water and pat dry before stir-frying.

You can vary the flavors in any number of ways if your Asian cupboard is well stocked with a variety of chili pastes, bean pastes, Sichuan peppercorns, black vinegar, rice vinegar, aji-mirin, fish sauce, Sriracha sauce, miso, light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, pickled chiles, sambal olek, and so on. Below is the simplest form: just a little soy and aji-mirin (sweet rice wine).

1 package fresh udon
1 tbsp peanut oil
2 green onions, thinly sliced (reserve sliced tops for garnish)
1 tbsp garlic, chopped
1 tbsp ginger, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, thinly sliced julienne
2 cups wild greens, torn (or bok choy, cabbage, etc.)
soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)

1. Boil udon according to directions. Drain, rinse, pat dry, and set aside.

2. In a wok or large pan, sauté green onions, garlic, and ginger for a minute in peanut oil over medium heat. Add carrot and cook together another minute. Add greens and stir-fry until wilted, 30 seconds or so.

3. Stir in cooked noodles, add a splash of aji-mirin (less than a quarter cup) and a splash of soy sauce, to taste. Mix well, add a little sesame oil, and serve. Top with a garnish of sliced green onions, cilantro, crispy fried shallots, a fried egg, or a five-spiced short rib—or all of the above.

Dandelion Jelly

After reading Ava Chin’s Urban Forager column in the New York Times the other day I was inspired to make Dandelion Jelly.

This has been in the back of my mind for a while but I always seem to have some other use for the hard-won yellow petals: bread or muffins or wine. And it’s not like one just has flowers to burn (despite what my neighbors think about my “lawn”). Harvesting the petals is definitely not in the same league as plucking a few leaves for a salad or buds for an omelet. It’s a commitment. Luckily I went a little overboard during my wine-making foray, collecting a cool eight cups of petals rather than the six cups the recipe called for—giving me exactly the two cups needed for Ms. Chin’s recipe.

Always the pranksters, the dandelions weren’t done with me yet. My unruly petals refused to submit placidly to the domestic arts. On the first go-round the jelly didn’t want to set, resulting in a syrup instead. The next day I poured all the syrup back into the pot and added 4 more teaspoons of pectin. This did the trick, though I lost a significant quantity cooking down the syrup and even then I wasn’t convinced it would set. But after returning from Olympia that night (which is like a trip in the Wayback Machine to the Seattle of 20 years ago, pre-tech boom, pre-Starbucks, pre-WTO but definitely not pre-grungewear or pre-dive bar…I liked it) I discovered that my measly 3/4 of a pint had set most gracefully.

The flavor is really quite wonderful. It’s kind of like a gelified honey. (Did I make up that word? Apparently not.) After enjoying—no, gobbling down—my first taste of gelified honey aka dandelion jelly on an organic wheat English muffin, I felt like one of those drunken bumblebees you see in the dandelion fields. There was nothing to do but flop down and take a mid-morning nap.

Here’s the recipe, with the caveat that your mileage may vary. Don’t forget: pectin is your friend when it comes to Dandelion Jelly.

2 cups dandelion petals
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
2-4 tsp pectin*

* Maybe more, maybe less. This jelly operates on principles beyond our ken.

1. Bring 2 cups water to boil and add dandelions. Boil 10 minutes over medium heat.
2. Strain dandelions and return liquid to pot.
3. Add sugar, lemon, and pectin, then bring to boil again before reducing heat to a simmer. Stir with wooden spoon until syrupy. This may take little time or lots of time, depending.
4. Pour into sterilized jars, seal, and process in hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Yields about a pint.

A Dandy Day in the Neighborhood

This post is featured in Volume 7 of the Good Life Report. Subscribe here.

Ray Bradbury famously waxed nostalgic about his family’s love of dandelion wine. The story first appeared in Gourmet magazine and conjured a mostly lost bucolic America where everyone owned a wine press and the hated weed of today was thought of in much gentler terms. Bottled sunshine he called the tonic they made in the cellar. Even though dandelions are predominantly harvested in spring, the writing evokes thoughts of endless summer days, backyard baseball games, and kids with fishing poles riding bikes down to the local pond—the sort of stuff our current crop of post-structuralists might call a simulacra.

Sometimes I think I caught the tail end of that America in my own childhood, when there were still woodlots to roam near my family’s home and fireflies lit up the nighttime sky. Now most of us live in planned communities or the city. It’s paved. It’s crowded. But there are still plenty of dandelions.

The other day I went looking for six cups worth of the jaunty yellow petals in order to make wine. I started in my own tiny backyard, picking every one in sight. Then the front yard and down the block. Soon I was in front of the local elementary school, where last year I struck a bonanza of dandies, but a groundskeeper had already beat me to it with his John Deere. I continued on toward busy Rainier Avenue, once the gathering arterial for Italian immigrants in Seattle. They called the Rainier Valley “Garlic Gulch” back then. Now, after several successions, it’s largely Southeast Asian.

I walked through the community garden and found some beautiful bloomers. A middle-aged Laotian woman tilling her plot wanted to know what I was up to. I explained the culinary and medicinal benefits of Taraxacum officinale, how it’s much more nutritious than virtually anything we can grow ourselves, and she pointed me toward a burned-out husk of a house down the block. She told me an involved story about the fire and how her people wanted to help the owner rebuild but instead he was sitting on his hands. “He lazy but he good man,” she said. “I tell him you pick there.” This seemed like a legitimate enough invitation to me.

Indeed it was a dandy heaven. When not molested by the mower, dandelions grow tall and robust, angling their Cheshire Cat grins toward the solar life-force. I picked the front and then slipped around back, which is where Dandelion Nirvana truly opened up before me. There was an abandoned car and a loud autobody shop on the other side of the fence. A black cat prowled a hedgerow. This yard hadn’t been attended to in years! It was a sea of warm, inviting yellow.

I must have lost myself in the picking, because when I looked up I saw an old man sitting on the back stoop pulling a Budweiser out of a paper bag. It was 11 in the morning, and I decided this was a fairly valid maneuver on such an unseasonably hot April day. I picked my way over to him. He offered me the other can of beer in the bag, which I accepted.

“You police?”

No, I assured him, I was not. He was Laotian, too. His name was In Keow and he was 69 years old. Though the language barrier between us was tough, we persevered. His grandfather had once owned this home, he said. Next door lived a Vietnamese man. He said he was retired, that he had worked very hard, and that he would still work—but only for cash, no check. He was adamant about this last point. We sipped our beers in the hot morning sun.

In Keow was amused by my stoop labor in the dandelion patch. He had social security arriving once a month and some other unspecified payouts. Making wine—and spending hours plucking little dandelion petals to do it—was definitely not on his agenda. “I go to store,”he said proudly. “I buy beer.” As for me, I wasn’t about to argue with that logic. Springtime in America has never quite been what they say it used to be.

To make a simple Dandelion Wine, I followed the instructions of Pattie Vargas and Rich Gulling in Making Wild Wines & Meads. Combine 6 cups dandelion petals, 1 lb raisins, 2 lbs sugar, 1 tbsp acid blend, and 1 gallon boiling water into sanitized bucket. A day later mix a starter culture of 1 1/2 cups orange juice, 1 tsp yeast nutrient, and 1 package wine yeast in a jar, shake it up, and let it sit until bubbly, one to three hours. Pour starter culture into the vat along with 1 tsp pectic enzyme and loosely cover. Rack after three days into air-locked container, then rack again three months later and bottle. Wait another six months—until the depths of gloomy winter—to enjoy a taste of bottled sunshine.

Dandy Tempura

In case you haven’t noticed, dandelions have bigger brains than people. Seriously. And they get smarter each time you whack them. Mow a lawn of dandelions repeatedly and what happens? The dandelions learn to flower ever closer to the ground until those yellow Cheshire cat faces are grinning at you from beneath the grass. They know exactly how far down the cutting blade can reach, and that’s where they proliferate once again.

The other day, after harvesting a few batches of dandelion petals for Dandy Bread, I actually mowed my lawn, surprising myself even more than my neighbors. It’s been a week and the yard is already replenished with dandelions. No biggie. I picked a bunch of blooms for tempura.

Got a problem with tempura? I didn’t think so. Here at FOTL we may periodically throw a tizzy about health and nutrition and generally staving off rot, but you won’t hear a lot of griping about FAT. It’s the stuff for which our ancestors put their lives on the line. Need some fat to survive the winter? Roger that, let’s tool up and take down one of them #$*%&@ woolly mammoths again. Tucking into a bag of pork rinds doesn’t carry quite the same cachet.

Yeah but making you own tempura and making it well is almost as cool as hurling a prehistoric projectile at an oversized elephant having a bad hair day. And while I’ve tried a bunch of tempura recipes over the years with wildly varying results, this time I think I figured out the secret. Whatever you do, make it more watery than you deem appropriate. I used a recipe found here, then tweaked it.

3/4 cup flour
1/4 cup corn starch
1/2 cup ice-cold water, plus extra
1 tbsp rice wine
1 egg

In a bowl mix the flour and corn starch. In a second larger bowl, beat an egg until frothy, then add the ice water and beat some more. Stir in the rice wine. Now add the dry ingredients and mix quickly, not worrying about the lumps. Don’t over-mix! If the batter oozes off a spoon, it’s too thick. Add more ice water until the batter is watery. It’ll seem way too watery if you’re used to making, say, Beer-Batter Fish and Chips, but trust me.

Now proceed over to the stove with your bowl o’ batter and a plate of dandy flowerheads. Your vegetable oil should be good and hot by now. Flick in a drop of water to see if it pops and sizzles. Using your hands, dip a dandy in the seemingly too thin gruel. The batter will run off the dandy in sheets but the flower will still be thinly coated and looking rather sad and soggy. Gently drop the dandy into the oil, petals facing down, and PRESTO! The flower opens up as if the sun has just come out. (This miracle of kitchen chemistry won’t happen if the batter is too thick and heavy.) It’s really quite amazing to see the dandy regain its form, albeit with a beautifully thin veneer of crispy tempura as its new skin.

Dandy Tempura has an unusual mouth feel. If the batter is right, the outer crust should be crispy, yet being a flower, the overall texture is squishy. I mix the dandies in with other more traditional fare: sweet potato, bell pepper, onion, and zucchini, to name a few.

Now go pick a mess of ridiculously nutritious dandelions and start frying. That’ll teach those PhD weeds!

A Dandy Time in the Neighborhood

Picking dandelions early Saturday morning in your front yard is the sort of civic activity that gets you noticed. Joggers huff and puff down the sidewalk and momentarily crane sweaty necks to see what you’re up to. Neighbors walking dogs stop to talk in a disguised attempt to figure out what the hell you’re doing now, all the while wondering, Is he finally getting ready to mow his freakin’ junkshow of a lawn? Baby-strollers hurry past—that’s where those crazy people live…

Actually, in all honesty my neighbor Mike, a scientist getting ready to head off to the Arctic for three weeks to continue studying our doom, wandered over with Daisy (the poodle) to see what my daughter was shrieking about. (She’d found a slug.) Mike even plucked a dandy for me and gave it an expert twist to release the golden petals. He’s fairly forgiving of our lack of lawnmowing. Looking at our neighbor’s lawn and then ours, he said, “I always figured that was the fairway and this was the rough.” Rough is right. When I suggested there was something disturbing about the mania for weeding one of the most nutritious plants on the planet, he warily agreed (he’s a climate scientist after all!). People are crazy.

Then I paused for a while to watch a spotted towhee singing in the top of our hawthhorn tree. He’s a randy towhee for sure, and I hope he sticks around to raise a brood.

Anyway, the correct way to harvest dandelion petals is to pick them in the morning while they’re still closed and twist the petals away from the rest of the green flower head. A robust crop of flowers can give you a couple cups’ worth of petals in no time. Just watch out for any unwanted hitchhikers.

It’s peak dandelion petal time in Seattle. This is the time of year I make Dandy Bread, a favorite of the kids. After reading Molly (Orangette) Wizenberg’s wonderful new book, A Homemade Life, I took her advice and bought a simple oven thermometer that hangs from the rack. Loe and behold: Our oven was off by a cool 25 degrees! But I don’t think this is why my recipe posted last year (based on a Peter Gail recipe) seems to be a little too moist, so I’ve edited the original to a “scant 1 1/2 cups milk.” In other words, not quite a cup and a half. Otherwise it’s still easy and delicious, and a great way to make use of those nutrient-packed dandelion heads blooming all over town like an army of self-satisfied Cheshire cats.

Wilted Dandy Salad

Over the weekend Marty and I took a stroll down to Lake Washington through our neighborhood park. Dandelions were everywhere, big clumps of them, most without buds—in other words, salad greens prime for the picking. If your palate is sensitive to bitter tastes, it’s essential to find dandelions that haven’t budded. We brought home a tote bag’s worth.

I’m not a big fan of warm salads. The other night we had dinner at a new restaurant in Seattle, and though my main was good, I thought the salad of warm spring greens (foisted on me by my dinner companions) was sacrilege. I want my tender young lettuces upright and crisp, not soggy and slumped over.

But there is one warm salad I’ll walk miles for. We’ve been making a version of it with spinach for many years now, thanks to a recipe shanghaied from our friend Kathy. Our stash of dandelions seemed like an obvious fit on this occasion.

Kathy’s Wilted Salad

6 cups dandelion greens (or spinach)
2 cups basil leaves
3-4 oz prosciutto, diced
1/2 cup pine nuts
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Mix the greens in a large salad bowl. Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Add pinenuts and garlic, stirring occasionally. When pinenuts start to brown, add prosciutto and cook one more minute. Pour contents of skillet over salad greens and toss with parm. Season if necessary.

No Joke Halibut with Braised Dandy Greens & Cannellini

Halibut with Braised Greens
In like a lion and out like a lamb? Not likely. Look, I know Mother Nature is pissed about all the insults we’ve heaped on her, but snow in Seattle on April 1 is not my idea of a funny ha-ha April Fool’s joke. Mostly it’s been icy rain today, but for a few minutes everything slowed down like a phonograph on half-speed and the flakes started accumulating on my shoulders—while I was gathering dandelion leaves no less!

I guess this means we’ll have a long season for early spring greens. Phil the groundhog must be in exile.

Dandelion GreensIn any event, I got enough of the green stuff to offset the audacity of the white stuff. The dandelions poking through the pavers of my back terrace are just right for the plucking: big rosettes of leaves without buds (yet).

I braised a handful of the dandelion greens in white wine (1/4 cup) and chicken stock (1/2 cup) with some chopped garlic for 15 minutes or so. Meanwhile in a pot I combined a cup of cooked cannellini beans with half a diced tomato and its juice plus a half cup of chicken stock, then seasoned with a healthy sprig each of fresh thyme and oregano, along with salt and pepper; this I simmered for 15 minutes as well. The beans got ladled onto a warm plate and then topped with the greens; a pan-fried piece of halibut (not caught by me, alas) lorded it over the veggies, drizzled with a quick beurre blanc of butter, lemon, and wine made with the pan drippings.

Halibut with Braised GreensNot a bad lunch on a miserable day. The tang of the lemon married perfectly with the slightly bitter greens (think braised kale if you haven’t eaten dandelions before), while the flaky fish and creamy cannellini beans worked together with their textural counterpoints. This is an easy meal I’ll be eating again. By the way, the amounts above make enough for two; figure 1/3 lb of halibut fillet per person.

On a related note, while buying my fish at Mutual, I noticed they had monkfish for sale. I asked the manager about the provenance of the fish (since Seafood Watch says it’s one to avoid because of harmful bottom-trawling techniques), and he was able to confirm that it was hook-and-line caught. This is good news for lovers of the “poorman’s lobster,” such as myself and We Are Never Full. I think it’s important that all of us who love food (and the planet, by extension) should continue to ask these questions of our fishmongers and restaurateurs. We’re all in this together. Good on Mutual for doing the right thing.

Halibut with Braised Greens

Dandy Burger

It’s game time. My boy is scheduled to take the mound today. I deliver the pep talk and then hand him a shot of nourishment. A sports drink? An energy bar? Nah. I hand him a hot Dandy Burger.

Yes, I’ve gone off the deep end. Just when you thought I was done with $&@%# dandelions…

What can I say? I had a fresh crop on the lawn.

This recipe comes from a member of the Forage Ahead Yahoo group. I adapted it slightly, adding more flour and onion plus an egg.

1 cup packed dandelion petals (no greens)
1 cup flour
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup chopped onions
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp each basil and oregano
1/8 tsp pepper

Mix all ingredients together. The batter will be wet and goopy. Form into patties and pan fry in oil or butter, turning until crisp on both sides. Makes 4-5 very nutritious veggie burgers.

The Mariners bullpen could use a few of these.

Welcome KUOW Listeners!

Here’s an archived link to the show >>

Today at 2:08 p.m. FOTL will be on KUOW 94.9 FM Seattle, talking with “Sound Focus” host Megan Sukys about a delicious and healthy plant you can harvest right out of your own backyard: dandelions. This is a radio debut, so no promises from this not-ready-for-prime-time player… but it should open your eyes (or ears, rather) to alternative ways of dealing with a so-called weed. You can listen online.

We’ve been chatting up dandelions quite a bit around here in recent weeks. You can read about the health benefits of dandelions here and my quest to find other “superfoods” here, or check out the following recipes:

* Dandelicious Omelet
* Dandy Bread and Muffins
* Dandelion Delivery Cookies
* Fried Dandies

Now is a dandy time to get out there—to abandoned lots, unmown fields, farm margins, even your own backyard or parking strip—and harvest a weed that we spend zillions trying to eradicate and yet is more nutritious than any domestic vegetable.

FYI for new visitors, other topics covered by FOTL since its January ’08 inception include:

* truffle hunting
* oyster po ‘boys
* morel mania
* putting the porcini in Cream of Chanterelle Soup
* harvesting stinging nettles
* digging razor clams
* marinating frozen salmon

(Image by auer1816.)