THE other week, while out walking in glorious sunshine, I was stopped in my tracks by the sheer beauty of the carpets of blazing yellow dandelions now illuminating the banks of the Grand Canal.
Being not so enthusiastic about these perennial wild flowers in the middle of my vegetable garden, it was wonderful to bask in their beauty when naturalised in the wild.
In truth you don’t have to walk too wild to spot dandelions as they are one of Ireland’s most profuse and best-known weeds.
From lawns, vegetable plots and wild grassy areas, these blazing yellow flowers are familiar to all from an early age. The deeply toothed leaves of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) are easily identified and can be seen practically all year round, but April and May is the time when the large golden-yellow flowers, comprising a profusion of fine petals, are in their glory.
All parts of dandelions, except the seeds, are edible and their leaves, roots and flowers have historically been prized for a variety of medicinal properties. It is the young fresh leaves that are most desired in culinary creations and are delicious in soups or salads.
They tend to have an incredibly bitter taste so work best when mixed with other leaves. To use in salads, tear off young leaves, wash, and eat immediately.
The bigger the leaf the more bitter the taste. A good salad dressing can act as a great disguise and, of course, leaves can also be added to dishes and cooked like spinach.
The lower parts of the leaves are sometimes blanched (excluding light) much like endive and chicory to make them less bitter and more tender. This is most common in France, where various cultivars are grown in gardens for this reason.
It is said that half a cup of young dandelion leaves contains more calcium than a glass of milk and has more iron than spinach. The leaves have more vitamin A than carrots and they’re also packed full of protein and fibre. Not bad for a weed!
The Japanese use dandelions as a root vegetable, with roots being at their best, that is long and fat, in autumn. Simply scrub and cut the long taproot into rings before sautéing in vegetable oil and serving with soya sauce.
In Western culture roots are routinely roasted and ground and used as a caffeine-free coffee substitute. It is these very roots that cause most problems for gardeners so it’s good to know they have a use after the hard battle.
Dandelion flowers are well-known and loved by pollinating insects, particularly bees, and have traditionally been used for making wine and honey - they can also be used to make dandelion vodka. Dandelion beer involves the entire plant (leaves, stem, roots and petals) being fermented.
Dandelions are also a well-known diuretic, testified by their French name ‘pis en lit’, which literally translates as ‘piss in the bed’, a name that will send every child into hysterics. But if it stops them from pretending to tell the time and blowing the familiar dandelion seed head ‘clock’ around your prized lawn or garden, it’s worth using.
Last year, I first heard about Dandelion honey and was instantly intrigued but missed my window of opportunity.
I have decided this year will be my initiation and look forward to trying this recipe sourced from Dee Sewell’s incredibly informative website on all things garden, community and edible, www.greensideup.ie.
Pick dandelions on a sunny day and place the flowers, water and lemons into a saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes. Leave to cool and stew overnight.
In the morning strain through cheesecloth/muslin and then bring the liquid to a slow boil, stirring in the sugar until dissolved.
Next, slowly simmer for about one and a half hours and voilà the honey is made.
Don’t overcook the honey and if you notice the mixture turning darker, remove from heat quickly lest the honey develops a burnt caramel flavour.
Vanilla could be added to the mix for an extra flavour.
Now dandelion honey may be somewhat a misleading name for this sweet delicious concoction, but I can understand the connection as the gorgeous golden colour of the two are comparable.
Dandelion marmalade might be more apt a title for this sweet preserve and, just like traditional marmalade, I look forward to smearing it over buttered toast.
If my batch turns out runnier than expected, I will simply label it dandelion syrup.