Mellow Yellow: How to Make Dandelion Wine

Today on Root Simple we welcome another guest post from our Midwest correspondent Nancy Klehm:

In the past week, we Midwesterners have experienced three hard frosts – killing back the growth, that emerged too early of my grapes and hardy kiwis and zapping peach blossoms. We will see if there is any fruit onset and if my vines recover.

Meanwhile, it is dandelion wine time!

I first tasted dandelion wine when I bought a bottle of it at a folksy gift shop in the Amana Colonies (yes, Amana of the appliance fame). I had wanted something to drink at my campsite that evening. When I opened the bottle, I anticipated something more magic than what met my tongue. It was cloying yellow syrupy stuff, which resembled soft drink concentrate. I poured it out next to my tent, returning it to the earth where she could compost it. I was sure that I’d never get close to it again.

That was fifteen years ago, and now I have been drinking dandelion wine for about two years. The new stuff is stuff I’ve made myself from dandelion blossoms gathered in Chicago. I’m happy to say that it is divine. I am sure now that the colonists actually keep the good stuff in their private cabinets.

Upon mentioning “dandelion wine”, Ray Bradbury usually comes to mind. However, after I heard a radio interview with him a few years back when he passionately made a case to colonize the moon so we can ditch this trashed planet and survive as a race, I got confused. Enough said.

So the point is, I am going to tell you how to make dandelion wine. I encourage you to do this because dandelions pop up everywhere and every place. They are nearly ubiquitous pioneers in our landscapes of disturbed and deprived soils. Consumed, they are a magnificent digestive, aiding the heath and cleansing of the kidneys and liver. Amongst vitamins A, B, C and D, they have a huge amount of potassium.

As a beyond-perfect diuretic, dandelion has so much potassium that when you digest the plant, no matter how much fluid you lose, your body actually experiences a net gain of the nutrient. In other words, folks – dandelion wine is one alcohol that actually helps your liver and kidneys! Generous, sweet, overlooked dandelion…

When you notice lawns and parks spotting yellow, it’s time to gather. The general rule of thumb is to collect one gallon of flowers for each gallon of wine you want to make.

Enjoy your wandering. People will think you quaintly eccentric for foraging blossoms on your hands and knees. Note: collect blossoms (without the stem) that have just opened and are out of the path of insecticides and pesticides.

So here’s how I make dandelion wine…

I pour one gallon boiling water over one gallon dandelion flowers in a large bowl. When the blossoms rise (wait about twenty-four to forty-eight hours), I strain the yellow liquid out, squeezing the remaining liquid out of the flowers, into a larger ceramic or glass bowl. I compost the spent flowers (thanks dandelion!).

Then I add juice and zest from four lemons and four oranges, and four pounds of sugar (4-4-4 = E.Z.). Okay, now here’s what I think is the best part: I float a piece of stale bread, sprinkled with bread yeast, in the mixture. This technique is used in Appalachian and some European recipes.

Then I toss a dishtowel over it so the mixture can both breathe and the crud floating around my house stays out. I continue stirring the wine several times a day until it stops fermenting. This takes about two weeks or so.

When I am certain it has stopped “working”, I strain, bottle and cork it up and bid it farewell until months later. In fact I wait until the winter solstice, when I can revisit that sunny spring day by drinking it in.

Candied Grapefruit Peel

Erik sourced some nice grapefruits from our friend’s tree and used the flesh to do some homework for his Master Food Preserver program. This left a big pile of organic, unwaxed grapefruit rind on our counter, so I decided to do something about it, and set off to make candied grapefruit peel. This is the technique I came up with by mashing together a bunch of different internet recipes and making two batches of the stuff. The results are delish if a bit rustic in appearance. I don’t think I’d pass muster at French pastry school with my lazy technique, but Erik and I like them a lot.

You must genuinely love grapefruit, the bitterness of it, to appreciate these. If you’re not a grapefruit fan, I’m sure this would work with orange rind as well. If you are a grapefruit fan, you’ll find yourself sneaking off to the candy jar for a little more that sweet-bitter flavor punch.

We’ve been snacking on them straight, but I think they’d be really good chopped into small pieces and sprinkled over vanilla ice cream or folded into scones or dipped in chocolate. I like them as straight-up candy because they’re so intense they satisfy restless cravings, but for the same reason you can’t gorge on them. Actually, I can’t eat more than two at a time. The how-to after the break.

The Technique

I’m calling this a technique and not a recipe. Grapefruits vary in size, peel thickness and bitterness, so results are going to vary.

This is a good thing to do when you’re working in the kitchen anyway, because it takes time, but not tons of attention.

  • Chop your rind into any shape you want. I cut mine into rough strips about 1/3-1/2″ wide and and 2″ long, though there were lots of smaller pieces, too. You don’t have to trim off the white pith. Thank goodness, huh? If it’s ridiculously thick, as it can be sometimes, feel free to carve some of it away as you work. Pieces with huge chunks of pith on them will be slower to cook and dry than the rest. I guess what I’m saying is that standardization leads to consistency. Not that it matters a lot. 
  • Put the cut up peel in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil, pour off the water. Refill and bring to a boil again. Boil four times total. This doesn’t take as long as you’d think. The boiling reduces some of the bitterness in the peel. 
boiled grapefruit peel
    • Use about 1/2 cup of sugar for every grapefruit. Pour the sugar into a saucepan large enough to hold the peel. Add half as much water as sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the drained peels and begin to cook over medium heat, stirring occassionally.  e.g. 2 grapefruit = 1 cup sugar + 1/2 cup water.  My batches were made with 5 small grapefruits and 2 cups of sugar.  (Obviously you can play with the amount of sugar–something with little pith, like a thin skinned orange, would need less. And maybe a “lite” version is possible. Try and see.)
    •  Cook the peels over medium heat. They will soften and turn transparent. Meanwhile, the sugar syrup will thicken and reduce. Keep cooking until the sugar syrup is so thick and so reduced that its mostly just coating the rinds, and the rinds themselves are golden and clear like tiny stained glass windows. Be sure to stir lots at the end so it doesn’t burn. This process took an hour in my case. It may have gone faster over higher heat. It would also go faster with a smaller batch.
    Cooking down the syrup
      • Turn the peels out onto an oiled rack to cool and drip off any excess syrup. (Lacking a rack, I ended up spreading mine over the bottom of colanders, which wasn’t a ton of fun, but worked.)  Let them stay there until they lose their wet stickiness. How long will vary–overnight, at least, I’d say. At that point you can sugar them if you want yet more sugar. It looks nice. Put the sugar on too soon and it will be absorbed into the syrup. When they’re totally dry, store them away in something air-tight.
      When almost all the syrup was gone/absorbed, as it looks here, I spread out the pieces to cool.

      The Secret to Japanese Cooking: Dashi

      Bonito flakes, available at any Japanese market.

      We conclude our Japanese themed week with the sauce that’s sort of the unified field theory of Japanese cooking: dashi. It’s in everything from noodle dishes to sauces to miso soup and it cooks up in just minutes. Dashi contains two ingredients, kombu (a kind of kelp) and bonito (shaved, fermented fish flakes). It’s the backbone of Japanese cooking, but we think it’s gentle, savory character could adapt well to Western-style cooking if you use it as a substitute for vegetable stock.

      Dashi only keeps a few days in the fridge, so the secret to using it regularly is to freeze half of every batch you make.

      Next Friday we’ll post a recipe for vegetables simmered in dashi. This is a classic Japanese cooking technique, and we’ve become very fond of it as an alternative to our usual saute/steam/bake repertoire.

      Sonoko Sakai, who taught the soba noodle class we described in an earlier post wrote an article on dashi complete with a detailed recipe.

      As an aside, I’m really interested in any of you who have foraged your own edible seaweed–if that’s you, please leave a comment.

      How to Make Soba Noodles

      Last month I took an amazing class with author and chef Sonoko Sakai on how to make soba noodles by hand. She’s a great teacher and I managed to make a halfway decent couple of servings of noodles during the class.

      Like many Japanese arts, soba making has a series of very precise steps. The recipe itself is simple (just buckwheat flour and water), though you do have to pay close attention to the temperature and humidity in the room. While it takes a soba master years to master the craft, you can make decent soba at home. My first attempt a week after the class wasn”t perfect, but I have a feeling I’ll get better with a little more practice. And I plan on making a lot of soba this summer.

      Made of buckwheat, soba is gluten free, though beginners start with some all purpose flour added in to make it easier to roll out. Sakai has a couple of soba recipes on her website. There’s a basic one here that includes a nice series of photos showing the steps you go through to roll it out and cut it. She also has a beautiful soba recipe using matcha here.

      Buckwheat flour for making soba is available in any Japanese market. The authentic Japanese flour we used in class is priced like cocaine and is not sold in the US. The buckwheat flour sold in Japanese markets in the states is grown in the US and will work just fine.

      In Japan soba is made with a couple of exotic tools. There’s a long and thin rolling pin with no handles. They have a martial arts vibe:

      Image from Worldwide-soba–they sell a soba making kit.

      I was able to improvise one of these at home with a dowel from Home Depot.

      There’s also a very expensive soba knife used to slice the folded dough:

      And a soba cutting guide:

      I substituted a small cutting board in my own kitchen. And my commitment to soba is not at the $1,000 level yet so there’s no fancy soba knife in our kitchen. At home I was able to make do with a regular kitchen knife, my improvised rolling pin and my homebrew soba cutting board.

      While this is one of those activities best learned in person, yes, there is a series of youtube videos you could use to figure out how to make soba at home:

      And, I do urge you to give it a try. The noodles we made in class were may times better than store bought soba. And, once you get the basic moves down, soba is quick to make, healthy and tasty.

      If you live here in Los Angeles you can sign up for the Los Angeles Bread Makers Meetup group–we’re going to ask Sonoko to repeat the soba class and do an udon class as well. You can also contact her through her website http://commongrains.com/ to find out if she’s doing a workshop near you.