Even as Martha Stewart digested the last bit of bitter pill the justice system had prescribed her, the symbol of her resilience was her act of plucking and pickling the wild, spring dandelions growing on the prison grounds. Fitting because since the beginning of history bitter herbs have been a symbol of both renewal and redemption.
True, dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) may be distrusted as a food source because most gardeners regard the pernicious lawn and garden weed to be so despised that a tool had to be invented for its sole eradication. However, these monsters are perfectly edible and healthful if not doused with lawn chemicals.
The cultivated herb called dandelion greens in farmers’ markets and food stores has the same health benefits as its annoying cousin. But it’s actually a chicory (Chichorium intybus).
Dandelions were brought to America from Europe more than a century ago to provide nectar for honeybees. The word dandelion is an Englishman’s poor translation of the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s teeth, for its serrated leaves. The plant’s health value has been recognized in Europe, Asia and the Middle East for centuries.
“Dandelion greens are one of the best bitters and are considered to be one of the most effective detoxifying herbs,” says Shannon Juliana, a certified nutrition consultant.
Dandelion root and its flowers have other roles to play in nutrition, but the lists of ailments eased by dandelion greens are based on the leaf itself. These include breast cancer, diabetes, heartburn, eczema, stiff joints, hepatitis, arthritis, rheumatism and gallstones by increasing the production of bile. Juliana also maintains that the leaves are high in biofllavonoids, calcium, iron, magnesium and niacin. They are high in vitamin C and E and all of the B vitamins. Plus they contain one of the highest sources of vitamin A. Dandelions cleanse the liver, are a natural diuretic, reduce cholesterol and are good for the pancreas, spleen and stomach.
But after this pleasant stroll through the medicinal arts, it’s time to retire to a real farm to witness this miracle weed in person. Down a dirt road off Highway 1, buttressed with ancient farm implements and hoop houses groaning with great lawns of baby plants, I meet organic farmer Jeff Larkey, the man who jokingly refers to himself as the Dandelion King.
“It’s like a weed,” he says. “There’s no trick to growing them.”
The rows stretch into the late afternoon sunlight, making one feel invigorated just by the proximity to the plants. Larkey’s been farming these picturesque acres for the last 26 years. Before that, immigrant Italian farmers worked the little valley, a history that Larkey reveres.
In fact, Italy grows more varieties of chicory than any other country in the world. Perhaps the most recognizable to us are radicchio and endive. Yet for the uninitiated palate it may take a salad or two of greens to warm up to the taste.
Dandelion greens can be sautéed in olive oil, steamed, braised, boiled, or, for the brave of heart, eaten raw in all their bitter glory. The greens can be substituted for spinach, Swiss chard or other greens in your favorite recipe. The dandelion flower buds can be fried in butter, which enthusiasts say makes them taste like mushrooms. For those whose livers have been fortified by the green weed, here’s the old famous American recipe for dandelion wine.
One gallon of dandelion blossoms
One gallon of hot water
Juice of one lemon
Three oranges peeled and sliced
Four tablespoons of sugar
One cake of yeast
Combine water and blossoms in crock, let stand for 24 hours and then drain. Add rest of ingredients and let stand for three weeks. Bottle and age at least three months.
Sautéed Dandelion Greens
Sautee with olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic. Serve over rice. Simple yet delicious.