Dandelion Greens with Sweet & Sour Bacon Dressing

Spring continues to march forward at Cow Hill Cottage, and the gardening chore list grows each day. I find myself lingering later and later in the garden not only to meet the demands of the season but because of the warm sun and attractions of spring. The lilacs are in bloom and their aroma, as well as their visual show, discourage any thoughts of me leaving my garden chores early.

While preparing seed beds, I found a nice stand of dandelions within the wood chip paths between the raised beds. These common plants, considered by most to be the scourge of the well-manicured lawn, are both a curse and a blessing. As a weed, they are difficult to eradicate, but from a culinary point of view, they are a key ingredient in both the food culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch as well as the traditional European peasant.

Weeds have been a part of the peasant’s diet for hundreds of years, providing sustenance during lean times and a basis for tonics and medications. Within the context of the local Pennsylvania Dutch culture, the consumption of this bitter herb has always been associated with the celebration of Holy Week and Easter as well as a tonic for spring fever.  

When I was young, one was often encouraged to make sure you had eaten your dandelion as, without it, spring fever would prevail. We were reminded, with much amusement, that spring fever was a result of all the iron in your body turning to lead and being deposited in your behind.

This spring, I have managed to enjoy this culinary tradition twice and believe I have both prevented spring fever and lightened my step a bit.

Wild greens like dandelion are often served with a Sweet and Sour Bacon Dressing, with hard boiled eggs, chopped spring onion, and sometimes fresh garden radishes. In my family, we prepare the Sweet and Sour Bacon Dressing more as a gravy to be served over boiled potatoes that often serves as a side dish to fried country ham. Both are delicious, and I encourage you to experience both.

As to the foraging of the greens, please gather them in an area that has not been treated with chemicals of any type, and be sure to wash the collected greens multiple times in fresh water to assure all grit and dirt have been purged. Manually inspect your crop, discarding any stems or other debris.

I have often heard that the greens become increasingly bitter as they grow larger, and the production of the familiar yellow flower is rumored to increase this bitterness as well. I myself do not find this to be the case, but when considering the salad version, I would think that the younger greens would be preferred over the tougher, more mature ones.

I’m providing my recipe for this simple country dish and hope that you find it as delicious as I do. Also, I believe I will sleep better tonight knowing that I have done my part in helping you to keep spring fever at bay and the lead from your behind.

Render on low heat ½ lb. of medium-diced smoked bacon until the bacon is just beginning to become crisp. I find a cast iron fry pan and a very low and slow approach is the secret to this part of the recipe.

When the bacon has crisped, sprinkle five to six tablespoons of flour over the bacon and stir into the rendered bacon fat to make a smooth roux, cooking for a few minutes to assure no raw flour taste remains.

Add together ½ cup cider vinegar, ½ cup of sugar, 2 beaten egg yolks, and 1 cup of water, and mix well. Add this mix to the bacon and roux in the fry pan over medium heat, stirring well until thickened.

Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Add approximately 2 cups of the clean dandelion greens to the pan, turning the heat off so that the greens wilt slightly.

Pour over hot boiled potatoes and serve with a thick slice of fried ham of your choice. I myself prefer a smoked country-style sugar-cured ham.

If you have a variation of this recipe or some fond memories about eating wild greens, I’d love to hear from you.

Spring Tonic Season Dandelion, Nettle, and Burdock

The rhythms of the natural world serve as our constant companions throughout this journey we call life. When living a simple lifestyle, immersed within the meter of the seasons, we often find this essential connection to our natural world more poignant when experiencing spring’s renewal process.

An essential element of this seasonal renewal is the spring tonic.

I have asked my neighbor and friend Sue Burns to share with us her knowledge of the herbal and natural healing world. I find Sue’s perspective on herbal, holistic, and natural health to be firmly based within a context of thoughtful consideration and practical advice.

As an introduction, Sue’s bio follows, and I hope that you will enjoy her insight into the seasonal rituals of the spring tonic as much as I have.

Sue is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant and Certified Holistic Health Educator. She holds degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Clayton College of Natural Health, and Hawthorn University. Through the Mt. Nittany Institute of Natural Health, she participated in an herbal studies program under the direction of Jennifer Tucker. For seven years, she was the Nutrition Educator for Curves Fitness Center in Mifflin and Juniata Counties, facilitating weight management classes and healthy living workshops. Before retiring, Sue offered holistic nutrition consultations and classes via her business, Nourishing Journeys. In addition to her family and friends, the joys in her life include cooking, reading, and travel. She lives in Reedsville with her husband Rich. They have two grown daughters and three grandchildren.

Spring Tonic Season Dandelion, Nettle, and Burdock, OH MY!

The spring-cleaning bug bit me recently. In response, I began purging post-dated items from our food pantry, a chore with no reward except the smug assurance that our spices are now arranged in alphabetical order and that five-year-old sleeve of crackers from a Christmas gift basket no longer litters a shelf.

In my haste of wanting to finish this mundane task, I knocked a small rectangular box to my feet. Ah, yes, I smiled, looking at its contents. This was surely a message from Mother Nature and her emerging spring season, for within the container was dandelion root tea! The perfect spring elixir to chase away my sluggish cabin fever. It was time to put the kettle on.

As I was sipping and savoring the earthy blend, I recalled fond memories of early spring days many years ago. My grandfather lovingly tended a large, organic vegetable garden long before it was trendy to do so. The first greens to emerge from the corners of the lawn and between the rows of onions and peas were tender dandelion leaves. Some gardeners call them weeds, but my grandfather called them “delectable.” He taught me how to harvest the delicate leaves carefully. I would then tote them into their kitchen and, with the help of my grandmother, proudly serve them as the “spring tonic” that she touted was “good for what ailed you.”

Turns out, my grandmother was right.

Many years following my dandelion-plucking days, I found myself once again foraging for “spring tonic” herbs while part of a class of novice wild crafters expertly guided by herbalist Jennifer Tucker. This time, we were on an expedition for not only dandelion but also nettle and burdock. Jennifer explained that the pesky weeds of nettle, burdock, and dandelion are actually powerful, detoxifying herbs. Concentrated in both their leaves and roots are high levels of healing nutrients. Oh my!

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

In addition to giving our energy level a boost and restoring our immune system for overall health, dandelion can reduce blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Dandelion wards off inflammation while its root gives our liver a much-needed spring cleaning.

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

I learned the hard way to identify nettle. Although its leaves resemble plants in the mint family, its telltale sting is not forgotten; thus, wear gloves when harvesting. While its leaves are harsh, the healing benefits from this herb are nothing but soothing. It is nettle I reach for when feeling run down or a bit frazzled. Due to seasonal allergies, the month of August is bearable for me only because nettle is my daily companion. I also depend on its anti-inflammatory properties to help with the aches of arthritis. Traditionally, nettle’s key uses are that of a detoxifying and cleansing herb, and it combines nicely with burdock and dandelion as well.

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

According to medical herbalist Andrew Chevallier, “burdock is one of the foremost detoxifying herbs in both Western and Chinese herbal medicine.” Similar to dandelion, burdock also has anti-inflammatory properties. It also cleanses the liver, gall bladder, blood, and kidneys. Burdock is a great lymphatic and adrenal gland stimulator. With a tuned-up lymph system, we build a stronger immunity. Burdock is a great defense against chronic urinary tract infections and kidney stones and has antibiotic and antifungal properties. Rarely is burdock used on its own. Often it is combined with other herbs, such as dandelion, to balance its strong cleansing actions.

Obtaining the herbs

If you are feeling confident and are seeking an adventure in the flora and fauna of your area, you can forage for spring tonic herbs. Both the leaves and roots can be used, making these plants very versatile. For details of harvesting and preparing, check out the resources of Rosemary Gladstar and Susun Weed for step-by-step advice. 

However, if you want the benefits of these herbs without the digging, you can easily access these herbs at your local health food store or online. For the most part, they will come in the form of teas or dried herbs. Tinctures are great and readily available, too. I find them to be a quick and easy formulary for getting your tonic “on the run.” In addition to decoctions, tinctures, and teas, and except for fresh nettle leaves, the herbs mentioned in this article can be eaten fresh as a side dish or in smoothies and soups. Fresh nettle leaves must be cooked first to remove the “sting.” It is also important to harvest your herbs from areas free from chemicals and pesticides.

Here are some retail sources that I like for spring tonic herbs:

Once you have your herbs, it is time to steep a comforting and healing brew. Here’s how:

Spring Tonic Tea

1 Tablespoon each of:

Burdock Root

Dandelion Root

Dandelion Leaves

Nettle Leaves

Red Clover Blossoms (optional)

Begin making a decoction by placing the burdock and dandelion roots in a saucepan; add one quart of water; bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the herbs from the liquid.

Place the fresh dandelion leaves, nettle leaves, and red clover blossoms into a quart jar.

Pour the strained hot root decoction over the fresh herbs and steep for 30 to 60 minutes. The longer it steeps, the stronger the tea. Enjoy hot, at room temperature, or iced. This is also delicious blended with fruit juices.

Follow grandma’s wisdom, spring means more than a time to clean out our pantries. It is also time to put the kettle on and “come clean” from the inside out.

Another bit of wisdom: It is wise to consult your health care provider before using herbal supplements. Be especially cautious if you are taking prescription medication as there may be side effects.

Reflections and Winter Gardening

This summer, we’ve explored the satisfaction of simple but elegant cooking, preserving our seasonal bounty, and enjoying better quality, local-sourced food at a lesser cost. But there’s more: A life well lived is also a return to the lost art of simply creating. Before mass production, when living close to the earth was a given, people created out of necessity. Need a rug? Make one. Want food through the winter? Preserve it. But along with the work came a feeling of pride. I made this. I grew this. I canned this. And I’m happy I can share what I made with you. A good meal. A gift of canned goods.

A sense of community became essential, too. You grew that? I’ve grown this. Let’s get together to trade or barter or make a double batch. The Peasant Bon Vivant tours and workshops are helping to nurture this community by providing fellowship with friends or simply a fun day out or educational event in.

Through this blog, we hope you’ve tried new things, created what you’ve never created before, harvested new foods from your garden, bought fewer processed foods, and tried new recipes, and that you will want to meet like-minded friends. Friends who, like you, want more of a life well lived.

But let’s continue. Now that the eating-fresh season is over, how can we enjoy fresh, more nutritious flavors throughout the winter?

Winter Gardening
You may have noted my reference to the winter garden in prior blogs and social media posts, and many have inquired about this seemingly unrealistic concept. So, I thought I would explain in a little more detail this very simple but productive process and the types and varieties of plants I grow.

I have only recently discovered the potential of winter gardening and have been using these techniques over the past three years with varying degrees of success. My initial exposure and education came about through the works of Eliot Coleman, a Maine-based market gardener, and his two books Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. For those of you wishing to explore this subject in depth, I would recommend both.

To begin, cultivating and harvesting crops throughout winter has a long and established history in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, with its zenith reached during the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, market gardeners throughout Paris produced the lion’s share of the fresh produce required by the city by cultivating small one- to two-acre plots.

These ingenious urban farmers used many innovative techniques to maintain the food needs of Paris. They developed and refined many winter garden techniques that allowed for the provision of fresh, seasonal, and sustainable vegetables and salad greens throughout the entire year.

Coleman’s exploration of European winter gardens, both large and small, provided the foundation for his own four-season market gardening success, which he shares through his market garden farm located near the Maine coast and in his writing and appearances at many garden and farming symposiums and conferences.

When I began my exploration of this subject, I believed, wrongly, that the success of the winter garden was based on technology that would provide the climate of summer to my winter-based plantings. The actual method, though, is based on three specific areas. The first is the use of plant varieties that are cool- and cold-weather tolerant. Second, winter gardening is more about winter harvest than winter growth with the actual growth occurring throughout late summer and fall. Third, using late-season plantings to accelerate early-spring growth for an early-spring harvest. An additional concept is planting in succession to assure the continuous availability of product throughout fall, winter, and late spring.

In the gardens at Cow Hill Cottage, I focus on plantings that will provide to me salad greens throughout late fall and winter, and late-season plantings in support of early-spring production as well. This year, I have planted beds of lettuce and salad mix that I will cut and allow to regrow for a second harvest later in the season. Also, I have planted a few Asian greens called Bok Choy and Pac (or Pak) Choi, as well as small carrots, leeks, and various herbs, including cilantro, parsley, and winter thyme. I will be savoring these throughout the winter and early spring. I have also successfully grown a few greens that the average American gardener might not recognize but are traditional within the European garden culture. These include Mache (or Corn Salad, which is the ultimate cold-weather salad green) and Dandelion, a very common so-called weed known to many of us in Pennsylvania. Many forage the wild Dandelion greens every spring in support of our traditional spring tonic meal of greens, sweet and sour dressing, boiled and browned potatoes, and fried country ham.

The cold frame is the basis of winter gardening. One can consider, also, low and high tunnels along with the root cellar storage area. Because of space limitations, my endeavors are constrained to the cold frame, where I’m still able to produce a substantial and adequate harvest.

The cold frame is a basic bottomless box constructed, in my case, from rough-cut two-by-ten hemlock lumber. In the past, I have used the same hemlock to fashion my lids or lights, but this year I have invested in new covers constructed from PVC “lumber” that can be milled. This product provides a strong, lightweight, and long-lasting component that is the key to the success of the winter garden technology.

The other two requirements of cold frame gardening are watering appropriately and venting the cold frames when needed.

Plants in cold frames need moderate watering. The moderate temperatures of late fall and early spring drive increased water consumption requiring two to three watering per week. During the colder months of November through early March, water requirements are very small or nonexistent, with a light watering needed perhaps every four weeks or so.

Cold frames need to be vented when sun and outdoor temperatures begin to overheat the interiors of the frames. One can manually prop open each lid with a short pole during the warmest portion of the day and then close the lids each evening. I have opted to invest in automatic openers for each cover that are temperature-activated and use no electricity.

This year, I also intend to produce bedding plants in the cold frames to support next spring’s plantings to include cabbage and Brussel sprouts, although tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants continue to require indoor seed-starting techniques.

Overall, winter gardening has brought a new level of activity to my gardening endeavors and a much-appreciated harvest of fresh greens and vegetables to my table during the long, dark days of winter. I also find in winter gardening the satisfying life-well-lived activity of producing fresh food throughout the winter months.