One of the first questions asked by many a beginner when it comes to their first foray into the wild larder is ‘what easiest to begin with?’ The most obvious would be the stinging nettle, blackberries, elderflower and of course: the dandelion.
Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are a member of the Daisy family along with yarrow, burdock, pineapple weed and chamomile. They are one of the most prolific of wild plants and you’d have to try particularly hard not to find them: gardens, hedgerows, fields, disturbed ground- they’re everywhere. The dandelion holds fond memories for me and is largely responsible for my journey into the world of hunter-gathering, when I was seven and entering into my feral child phase, my mother used to send me out to the garden armed with a pair of scissors to hunt lions for supper: ‘Only take the younger paler leaves’ was the only information given. This was very much the ‘Eureka’ moment when I realized that there were more than just blackberries to be had from the hedgerow.
The name dandelion comes from the French ‘Dent-de-lion’, a reference to the shape of the leaves, a jagged row of viscious teeth. Other names include: Pissenlit or Piss-a-bed which points to the plants diuretic qualities from a medicinal point of view. My personal favourite has to be ‘Fairy Cocks’, although why they are named this is beyond me!
In culinary terms, you can’t get much better than the dandelion, everything from the root up is edible, making it one of the most versatile plants to take out of the wild and into the kitchen. The sheer amount of recipes racked up by the dandelion over the centuries is testament alone. Coffee, wine, beer, salads…the list goes on, other than burdock and the rhizomes of Cat-tails, the root of the dandelion is one of the major carbohydrate resources available to us in the UK.
Four good things: Flowers, buds, leaves and roots.
How to use dandelion depends largely on what part of the plant you’re going for, what is a constant throughout is the dandelion’s tendency to bitterness, there are a few tricks to limiting it, such as blanching roots or leaves in changes of boiling water, picking only the youngest leaves or going for the preventative method of placing plant pots over select plants and leaving them for a few weeks until the leaves become pale and yellow. Think chicory. One thing that is for certain is a mixture of sugar, salt and lemon juice will really help bring out the best in dandelions.
To help with you with how to get the most out of dandelions here is a rough breakdown of what to do with what:
Flowers: other than adding a vibrant gold to a salad, the flower heads are also used in making quite a pleasant wine. Also you can pick out the stamens as a peasant’s saffron and add to rice which gives a tinge of yellow.
Buds: Prior to the flowers opening, the plump flower buds have a startling resemblance to caper berries- worth pickling to make a caper substitute as you can with ash keys. Follow the steps below using the ‘ultimate pickling liquid’. They can also be used raw in salads or added to soups.
Leaves: The leaves are very much a salad ingredient, although they can be wilted and served like spinach, I have always found them best in their natural state. Try to pick only younger leaves which wont be as bitter as some of the beasts you will find, if you are going to use bigger leaves- dress accordingly with a sweet dressing using sugar or honey. Works very well with a Lyonnaise-style salad, that goes by the name ‘Salade Pissenlit’ which utilizes bacon and the essential fat rendered from frying (see below).
Roots: The roots, once scrubbed well, can be blanched in a couple of changes of water and pan-fried, they can be roasted in the embers of a fire, peeled dipped in a little salt and nibbled on. To make coffee (again the bitterness is the reason it makes a good substitute), scrub and dry the roots, chop into small pieces and place them in the oven at 190C for a few hours, turning occasionally. These can then be put in a coffee grinder and used accordingly. Pleasant and nutty with one downside- Caffeine not included.
Ultimate Pickling Liquid.
(Makes 2 litres).
Based on a recipe from the book Artisanal Cocktails by Scott Beattie, this pickling liquid is a little on the sweet side, very aromatic and works well with bitter flavours. Particulary good with alexanders, fennel and cucumber, I use this as a standard pickling liquid for ash keys, Alexander buds and dandelion buds. Keeps in the fridge indefinitely.
- 4 tsp Fennel seeds
- 1 ½ TBSP mustard seeds
- 2 TBSP Coriander seeds
- 250g white granulated sugar
- 1.4 litres of white wine vinegar
- 3 cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 cardomom pods
- 1 inch of cinnamon
- 1 dried birds eye chilli
- 1 dried smoked chipotle chilli
First, heat a stainless steel pan and add the fennel seeds, mustard seeds and coriander seeds and toast for a minute or two to release the aromatic oils, then set aside.
Place the sugar and vinegar in a stainless steel pan and heat gently, until all the sugar has dissolved- DO NOT BOIL! Just as it is getting to the point of boiling, add all the other ingredients along with the toasted spices and take off the heat and put aside to cool.
To use, simply fill your jars with what you want to pickle, pour over the pickling liquid and seal- et voila!
Based on a Lyonnnaisse salad from Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, usually served with bitter endives and frisee lettuce. This salad has been served many a time by our less culinary adventurous neighbours using dandelions hence the name- Salad Pissenlit.
- 2 handful of young dandelion leaves
- A few scrubbed dandelion roots finely chopped and blanched.
- 2 handful of lardons
- 2 poached eggs
- 2 slices of toasted bread- chopped into squares for croutons
- 1 TBSP of olive oil
- 2 TBSP of white wine vinegar
- 1 tsp of Dijon mustard
- 1 TBSP sugar
- Juice of half a lemon
- Salt & pepper to taste
Wash the dandelion leaves first, then scrub, chop and blanch the roots in boiling water for 10 minutes. Mix up all the ingredients for the dressing in a jam jar.
Pan fry the lardons, then add the croutons and dandelion roots, poach two eggs and then you are ready to construct.
Plate up the salad and add the lardons, croutons and roots- make sure you get plenty of fat from the pan too- essential! Give it agood mix with your hands.
Add the poached egg on top and serve the dressing alongside. Done.
Dandelions are an essential part of the Spring Menu at Hunter Gather Cook. If you want to come and learn all about what’s at its best in spring, butcher a deer and try some wild brews along with plenty of taster dishes, outdoor cookery methods, trapping and fire making, why not book on one of our spring seasonal courses here!
Happy Lion Hunting!