Words and Photos by Ellen Zachos

The dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) may be the most easily recognized weed in the United States, and it grows almost everywhere. Fortunately, most New Mexicans don’t get all sentimental about perfect lawns, which means we can appreciate the culinary virtues of the dandelion.

This is a perennial plant, native to Eurasia. Brought to the United States by colonists as a medicinal herb, it adapted quickly to its new territory and followed Europeans as they moved west across the North American continent. While the dandelion has several tasty edible parts, at this time of year foragers focus on the roots.

Dandelion roots can be cooked as a vegetable; the flavor is mild, somewhat reminiscent of a potato. To enjoy the roots, wash them, boil them for two to three minutes, and then dunk them in cold water to loosen the skins. They should slip off easily, after which you may continue to cook the roots according to your recipe. Older dandelion roots may have a woody core, but you can easily remove the cooked flesh from the core with the tines of a fork.

More often, dandelion roots are used to make a caffeine-free coffee substitute. To do this, clean your dandelion roots, chop them into pieces about a half-inch long, and dry them. You can do this either in a dehydrator, or outdoors between two screens, which allows for both good air circulation and protection from hungry animals. Roast the dried dandelion pieces until they are the color of your preferred coffee roast. If you’re a French roast fan, roast those dandelion roots until they’re very dark brown. If you prefer Colombian roast, aim for a medium brown.

To make a cup of hot dandelion beverage, grind some of your roasted roots in a coffee bean grinder and combine eight ounces of boiling water with one tablespoon of roasted, powdered dandelion root. Let this steep for five minutes, then strain, and enjoy with lemon or milk.

But wait—there’s more! Powdered, roasted dandelion roots can also be used to flavor milkshakes, ice cream, and custards, and here’s where it gets really delicious. Roasted dandelion root ice cream may look like coffee ice cream, but its flavor is richer and more complex. Top with some red chile hot fudge sauce, and you’ve taken foraged flavor to a whole new level.

Roasted Dandelion Root Ice Cream

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup dried dandelion root chopped
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • Red chile hot fudge sauce optional . . . but is it?

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 250°F. Roast your prepared dandelion roots until they turn your preferred shade of brown, then grind the roasted roots in a coffee bean or spice grinder. Roasting may take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, depending on the size of your dandelion root chunks and how dark you want the roast. One-half cup of chopped, roasted dandelion roots should yield about 1/4 cup of powder.
  • Heat the cream, milk, salt, and sugar in a saucepan, whisking to dissolve the sugar. When the sugar is fully dissolved, add dandelion powder and stir to combine. Bring the liquid to a simmer, then remove from heat, cover the pan, and let the mixture steep for 30 minutes.
  • Strain the cream and discard the solids. Be sure to press the solids against the strainer to extract as much liquid as possible. The yield should be just over 1 cup of infused cream.
  • Reheat the cream to the simmering point, and while it’s heating, whisk the egg yolks together. Slowly add about 1/3 of the warm cream to the eggs, whisking constantly. This allows you to integrate the two liquids without cooking the egg. When the liquids are smoothly incorporated, add them back into the rest of the cream. Cook over medium-low heat until the liquid has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. I often have a hard time with this, because egg-based ice-cream batters seem to coat the spoon from the very beginning. To be sure, I use a candy thermometer, and when it reaches 170°F, I take the cream off the stove.
  • Strain the cream, add vanilla, and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
  • Churn the chilled cream in your ice-cream maker, and if you’d like to make this a truly New Mexican dessert, top it off with some of the aforementioned red chile hot fudge sauce from The Shed!

As the growing season ends, plants store nutrition in their root systems; this is what supports new growth in spring. So the best time to harvest most root crops is in early spring or late fall, when the plants aren’t drawing on that stored nutrition and the roots are full of flavor.