As soon as spring weather arrived in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, I was recruited by the Rizzo family for a day of picking dandelions. As a burgeoning gourmet, I became a champion at gathering dandelions, knowing that my reward would be a tasty Italian feast with several dishes containing the so-called weed.
It was a shock to learn that the dandelion has been called an enemy of gardeners and a nuisance to farmers. To many, it has been a nostrum to nourish and strengthen the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines. Dandelions have been known to help with anemia, cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis and jaundice. In addition, it helps to reduce serum cholesterol and uric acids. The parts used for human consumption are the tender leaves and the root. They are high in vitamins A, B, C, beta carotene, minerals and fiber.
Scholars of the Bible contend that the dandelion was the plant described as the bitter herb that is a part of the Passover Seder of the ancient Hebrews.
As for cooking and eating dandelions, there is no better authority than Dr. Peter Gail. He is the founder and president of the Defenders of Dandelions. He has researched and developed recipes and gathered folklore on wild plants used by people throughout the world.
He has collected more than 3,000 recipes for 105 plants, including more than 600 for dandelions. He began eating weeds as a young boy as a necessity for survival.
In 1994 his company, Goosefoot Acres, began sponsoring a yearly dandelion cook-off in Dover, Ohio.
Here is an opportunity for dandelion enthusiasts to prove their mettle as a weed-cooker. You have just enough time to make your way to Dover because the cook-off is held the first weekend in May. Dover also is the headquarters for Breitenback Wine Cellars, which produces 1,500 gallons of dandelion wine every spring, just in time for the Dandelion Mayfest.
The slogan of the gala celebration is: If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em.” Vineland, N.J., not only celebrates with an all-dandelion dinner, but the super-weed is a source of revenue for growers. The dandelion crop brings in about $200,000 from the 30,000 crates grown in the surrounding farm country. The annual dinner has been held since 1973, when Mayor Patrick Fiorilli and County Freeholder Director Charles Scarani organized this community celebration of dandelions. Vinelanders enthusiastically embraced the idea and came up with recipes for everything from soup to dessert. The residents of Vineland eagerly set about chowing down on dandelion soup, dandelion omelet, dandelion in marinara sauce, dandelion duck soup, dandelion bouillabaisse, dandelion quiche and, for dessert, another dandy dandelion creation: dandelion cannoli. All of this and more washed down with dandelion wine, made by the mayor himself.
Just in case you are fortunate enough to have a stash of dandelions, I am providing you with a recipe for dandelion wine. I got it from Mayor Fiorilli and have yet to try it, but am willing to sample any you might produce.
Makes 8 pints.
2 quarts dandelion blossoms
1 gallon water
2 oranges, coarsely chopped
2 lemons coarsely chopped
4 pounds sugar
1 Remove the dandelion stems and outer rings of leaves around the blossoms. Place the blossoms in a large bowl or crock.
2 Bring the water to a boil and pour over the blossoms. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to stand for 36 hours, stirring once or twice.
3 Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined colander and return to crock. Add the oranges, lemon and sugar and cover with plastic wrap. Store in a cool place and allow the mixture to ferment and bubble further.
4 When the bubbling stops and the mixture is clear, it is ready for drinking or bottling. How long this fermenting takes varies; it can be several weeks more.
5 Siphon into clean, clear bottles and cork with new corks (not used ones). Plastic corks are ideal.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food,” for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” Contact Doris Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.