Sunday, June 12, 2016

Delightful Dandelion - Medicine and Recipes!

A dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a hardy perennial wildflower that commonly grows across temperate regions in the Americas, Asia, and Europe. The dandelion is naturalized to North America. Most sources suggest dandelion was brought here by European settlers, like many other beneficial plants found abundantly scattered in lawns across the United States. These settlers found dandelions to be so useful that they carried the seeds with them on ships to the Americas and planted dandelions wherever they went. These settlers’ legacy lives on today, through the beautiful yellow flowers who bring back the springtime sun. It has only been in the last 50 or so years that dandelions went from being a treasured plant ally, worthy of carefully bringing across continents, to an enemy of many who don’t like to see them in their lawns. But this short article will show you why our ancestors spent so much time cultivating dandelions and saving their seeds!  We’ll briefly explore dandelion’s medicinal and edible qualities and I’ll share two recipes that will be delightful to try this spring. 
Spring tonic: Folk medicine in many parts of the world suggests that dandelion is a great “spring tonic” and “blood purifier.” Most of the time, these old sources are referring to what we now know as “alterative” action, that is, the dandelion supports the liver, digestive system, and metabolism. Citing several other herbalists, Matthew Wood, in his Earthwise Herbal, suggests that this is because of dandelion’s high nutritional content, its work on the digestive system, and because of its benefits to the kidneys and liver it is a primer spring tonic plant. The practice of ingesting dandelion greens as a spring cleanser when they first pop up was widespread throughout Europe. It is still done in parts of Europe and the Americas to this day. I, too, brew up a big pot of dandelion root tea and drink it for about a week straight in the early spring!

Addressing stagnant states: Another powerful way that dandelion can be used as a medicine is to address stagnation in many forms—stagnation of the mind (lethargy, dullness, listlessness) as well as stagnation in the liver, kidney, or gallbladder functions. Dandelion gets things moving again, and it is taken internally for this purpose as a tea, food, or tincture. I recently made a dandelion leaf tea for the purpose of clearing mental congestion—I dried the dandelion leaves and brewed them up daily as a tea. Dried leaves generally make a better tea than fresh leaves because the drying process breaks down the cell walls of the plant. When you add hot water, the water has an easier time penetrating the cell walls and extracting the nutrients and medicine from the plant (freezing the leaves does the same thing—again, the cell walls are burst by the freezing effect). 

Digestive bitters: One of the primary medicinal qualities of a dandelion is that it is bitter. Bitters are quite common in the wild, and as humans evolved, we most certainly ate a lot of bitter foods (just go sample any number of wild greens and you’ll see exactly what I mean). But as we cultivated plants more and more, and with the rise of industrialized agriculture, we cut bitters out of our diet. The lack of bitters is one of many factors contributing to many digestive issues today. Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald describes bitters as stimulating all digestive functions, including stomach acids, saliva, stomach enzymes, hormones produced in the stomach, bile, and so on. Each of these digestive functions, in turn, helps break down food and add to digestion and overall gastrointestinal well being. Bitters, therefore, are incredibly important to our overall digestive health, and good food digestion rests at the cornerstone of healthy living. In order for the bitters to be effective, you have to taste them on your tongue. Dandelion bitters are tonic; that is, they are something we don't take only when we are sick, but rather something we can take every day to help keep us in optimal health. I take my dandelion bitters about 10 minutes before each meal. A few drops of my dandelion root bitters on my tongue helps my digestion each day (recipe later in this chapter).

Harvesting Dandelion: For any wild food harvesting, dandelions included, you can use the following general guideline: roots in the early spring or late fall, greens in the early spring to early summer, and fruit or nuts (which dandelion doesn’t have, obviously) in the summer and fall. This guideline is based on where the energy of the plant is located—in the early spring, the energy will be in the plant’s root or in its greens (depending on timing). When the energy of the plant is in the roots, the nutrient content is higher and the medicine of the plant stronger in the roots. Once the root sends up its greenery, some of the energy is lost to leaf, flower, fruit, and seed production, and the medicinal and nutritive benefits are found in those parts of the plant rather than the root. Once dandelion flowers, that’s where the energy of the plant is; once it goes to seed, the seeds contain its energy. I discuss harvesting times specific to the different parts of the dandelion plant in the next paragraph, but this general guideline is good to keep in mind. 

To clean the roots, what I have found works best is to fill up a bucket with water and soak the roots for 30 minutes in it. Dump the water outside (or the dirt will clog your drain), and then spray the roots off with a hose. If there is still a lot of dirt left, give the roots another soaking and then spray them again. At this stage, I bring them into the house and put them in my food processor, chopping them up to the desired size. Then I give them a final wash before using them for whatever purpose I have (drying, roasting, tincturing, making dye). This approach to washing the roots works to get the dirt out with minimal work!

The dandelion greens (that is, their new, lighter green leaves) are best harvested in the spring as the plants are shooting up their new growth. You can also harvest new greens anytime a new dandelion plant is coming up—the younger leaves are more tender and tasty. In harvesting greens, the rule of thumb is that the younger the greens, the less bitter they are. You want some of the bitter nature of the plant (more on that in Chapter 5) but too much bitterness may not be so palatable. Again, you can
harvest from any safe place and then wash them lightly before using in whatever way you like.

Roasted Dandelion Root Coffee

The dried and roasted roots make a wonderful coffee substitute (and coffee, like dandelion, is a bitter drink promoting digestion and the healthful regulating of bowel movements). Here’s the process for making your own dandelion root coffee:

1.  After digging, cleaning, and finely chopping your roots, lay them out on a baking sheet.

2.  Set your oven to 250 degrees and place the roots inside. Over the next two hours, check on them fairly often, stirring them to ensure an even roast. Your house will be filled with the wonderful aroma of roasted dandelions!

3.  When they have the desired roasted quality, you can pull them out of the oven and let them cool.

4.  Store the grounds in an airtight container (like a mason jar).  I don’t grind them up to just before I brew the coffee.

5.  Before serving, give your roots a final grind in a coffee grinder or food processor to get a nice consistency. You can use 1 tablespoon (level) for 1 cup of coffee. You'll want to boil it for 10 to 15 minutes (don’t just brew it like regular coffee). Add cream and honey! Delicious!

Spring Sautéed Dandelion Greens

Pick the dandelion greens early in the season for this delightful treat. The younger they are, the more tender and flavorful (and less bitter) they are.  The oil, heat, and pepper compliment the dandelions’ bitterness.

·       2 cups dandelion greens (washed and chopped, with center stems removed if stems are thick)

·       1 clove garlic

·       hot pepper flakes or cayenne pepper powder to taste

·       1 tbsp olive oil

·       ½ teaspoon lemon juice

·       Salt and pepper to taste

·       Two slices of bacon (optional)

Boil the dandelion greens in a pot of water for 8 to 10 minutes or until the stems are soft. In the meantime, heat up an iron skillet with the olive oil (or bacon grease) and sauté the garlic until crispy. Drain the greens and add to the garlic and oil; add other seasonings to taste. Sautee 3 to 4 minutes, then serve.

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