Seasonal Cooking 08 May 2013 08:18 pm
If you think making dandelion wine is all about meandering in a green meadow, gathering flowers under a mild morning sun while spring breezes tumble up the hillside to play in the bushes and trees, you’re right. There are some steps to take afterward of course, but if you do it right the recipe begins in a pastoral scene like this. That’s how my girlfriend Karol & I found ourselves last Sunday morning on a grassy Vermont hilltop, looking out at the Green Mountains and picking dandelions. We could have picked them anywhere, but the owners of the beautiful Orb Weaver Farm invited us to pick at their place, so that’s where we went. Recipes for dandelion wine say to pick the flowers away from polluted, trafficy areas. By extension I’m sure that the wine will taste better for having been born in a such a beautiful place.
The idea to make dandelion wine was Karol’s. We were in Vermont at this time last year, and when she saw the yellow dandelions carpeting the ground everywhere she immediately thought of Edna Lewis, the great doyenne of southern cooking. Edna Lewis says, “the blossoms must be picked before noon. At midday they close up tight.” The basics of her recipe are: gather and clean the dandelion flowers ( “clean” means to pinch off as much of the green bracts as possible, leaving only the feathery yellow and white blossoms); pour boiling water over them and leave to steep for three days; strain, and add 3-1/2 pounds of sugar and leave to ferment for three weeks; strain again into jars and leave to ferment for 4 months. The flavor is said to be more like a liqueur or a sweet sherry. We’ll know what ours tastes like some time after Labor Day.
Today is day three. We’ll drain and sugar the wine tonight. The blossoms had to be transported to my Brooklyn kitchen from their Vermont meadow, and I hope the wine won’t suffer too much for it. When I poured boiling water over the dandelion flowers their buttery smell turned vegetal, like broccoli being steamed. After a day the odor mellowed and became grassy. On day two it became riper and sweeter and took on a fermented smell. Today the fermented smell is more pronounced. To me it smells earthy and full and pleasant. To Karol it smells like cat pee. Either way, I think it’s on its way to becoming wine.
I suppose it can be said that everything we humans eat compensates in some way for the fact that we can’t just eat sunlight like plants do. Instead we eat things that capture sunlight for us: leafy greens, fruits swelling up from the sun on their leaves, animal muscle built up by the sun-fed grass. In all my years of cooking, I’ve never handled anything quite so sun-like as those golden dandelion blossoms. When our first bottle of wine is uncorked under the chilly skies of autumn, I know that Sunday’s warm spring sun will come back to me.