Monday, April 25, 2011

Wild Edibles: The Humble Dandelion

My family and I had the opportunity to get away to a rustic little log cabin for a couple of days. It was in the middle of the woods and there was no phone, internet or TV for the time we were there. I don't remember the last time we went anywhere where we weren't plugged-in in some way. It was so quiet, so peaceful.

While we were there we did quite a bit of hiking through the back woods. We found abandoned roads and a crumbling homestead site. I couldn't help but wonder about what the people that lived there would have eaten. How they would have survived. We saw plenty of wildlife about, and I'm sure they would have depended heavily on them for a source of nourishment: deer, grouse, duck, geese, beaver, rabbit, and whatever else they could hunt, trap or fish. Perhaps they would have brought seed with them and would have tried to grow their own food in a garden, but I also suspect they would have lost much of it to wild animals.

Which means, they may have needed to supplement their diet by foraging for wild edibles instead: berries and fruits, greens, culinary and medicinal herbs, nuts, roots and tubers, mushrooms and so forth. I do not know much about wild foraging, but the subject is fascinating to me and one I'd like to learn more about. As we walked through the forest, I could see nothing to eat, other than the animals themselves. But, clearly the animals were finding plenty to live on. If we were later in the season, I could find wild strawberries, raspberries or saskatoon berries and even hazelnuts, but that is where my knowledge ends. As it happened, I picked up a book while there called, Feasting Free on Wild Edibles, by Bradford Angier. It was printed in the 1960s, so I'm not sure where you would find a copy of it today.

What an amazing resource! I knew of the benefits of fermented stinging nettles as a garden fertilizer and plan to try that this year, but they are apparently delicious and nutritious sauteed as well. There are a number of other wild berries, such as wild cranberries, blueberries, currants, pin cherries, elderberries and juneberries available for the picking should you know what you're looking for. I haven't read the entire book yet, but I am flipping through it as interest strikes me and my eye caught a section on the humble dandelion. I was aware that dandelion leaves steeped as a tea were a liver tonic, but I did not realize the entire plant had such potential. Here is an excerpt:
"Young tender dandelion green can be used to add character and vitamins to scrambled eggs. Mix 4 eggs and 4 tablespoons of cold water with salt and pepper to taste. Add a cup of shredded dandelions. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter, margarine or bacon grease in a frypan just hot enough to sizzle a drop of water. Pour in the egg and dandelion mixture and reduce heat...
"Although they contain a laxative, taraxacum, the roots, when young, are often peeled and sliced, like carrots or parsnips for boiling as a vegetable. To remove the characteristic tinge of bitterness, you may choose to change the salted water once. Serve with melted butter or margarine. Being particularly nourishing, these roots are famous emergency food, having saved people from starving during famines.
"Although the woods afford a multitude of teas, they are short on coffees. The dandelion will provide one of the latter. Roast the roots slowly in an open oven all afternoon until, shriveling, they resemble miniature dragons and will snap crisply when broken, revealing insides as brown as coffee beans. Grind these roots and keep tightly covered for use either as regular coffee or for mixing to extend normal supplies. Dandelion roots may be used the year round for this purpose...
"Dandelion wine is famous. If you'd like to make your own, pick a gallon of the flowers early on a dry morning, make sure that no parts of the bitterish stems are included. Press these into a 2-gallon crock. Pour a gallon of boiling water over them and leave for 3 days. Then strain through a cloth, squeezing all the liquid from the blossoms. Add to the juice thinly sliced rind and the pulp from 3 oranges and 3 lemons. Stir in 3 pounds of sugar (!). Add 1 ounce of yeast. Cover with a cloth and let it stand out of the way for 3 weeks while the mixture ferments. Then strain, bottle and cork or cap tightly." (1)
The healing and nourishing power from the dandelion is amazing! Apparently, dandelions rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value. They are nature's earliest and richest green vegetable source of beta-carotene and third richest source of vitamin A of all foods, after only cod-liver oil and beef liver. They are also apparently high in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, thiamine and riboflavin, as well as the micro-nutrients copper, cobalt, zinc, boron, molybdenum and vitamin D (2). Wow.

I imagine many of those old time settlers must have had knowledge about recognizing and utilizing wild plants. In fact, many of the plants we consider weeds or 'wild' today, were actually brought over by settlers as seeds to be planted in gardens and eventually populated the country side. I also wonder how many of those settlers suffered deficiency-related diseases or starved because they didn't know that there was food available right in front of them.

I think knowing how to grow one's own food is such an important skill to learn, especially from a food security standpoint. However, often overlooked is the ability to recognize the wild edibles at our doorstep should our own garden succumb to pests, disease or environmental conditions beyond our control. So, this year, I'm going to make it my aim to learn about four new wild plants and incorporate them into our diet. I have practical questions I'd like answered. How hard is it to find safe, non-chemically sprayed wild edibles among us? How much time would one have to spend gathering enough for a meal? How long is the season for each? How does one cook, utilize or preserve the different parts of each plant? And most importantly, how well will such a meal go over with my family?

Learning how to recognize nature's bounty is the key to utilizing it, and so, I'm going to start with the dandelion. I'll keep you posted on how that turns out.

Linked to Real Food Emergency Preparedness.

(1) Feasting Free on Wild Edibles, by Bradford Angier, pg 73-74


Anonymous said...

I've fried dandelion blossoms and they are delicious that way. You can either batter them like a tempura vegetable, or just stir fry them in a little oil.

My husband has a challenged liver after decades of prescription drugs, and dandelion root is particularly cleansing of the liver. Early in spring, I grate it and dry it then grind it and encapsulate it for him to take all year.

You are very wise to be studying this before the need arises. I imagine in an emergency situation, we will need foraging knowledge! Thank you for participating in the Real Food Emergency Preparedness Blog Carnival!

Shanon Hilton said...

I had heard that dandelion leaves are good for the liver, but had not heard that about the root. Thanks for sharing that!