Believe it or not these blowsy garden flowers were first introduced to our shores not as an ornamental, but as a tasty root veg. Skeptical? Here’s my rookie’s guide to growing, cooking & eating Dahlia ‘yams’.
WHY DAHLIA ‘YAMS’ MAKE GOOD EATING
Before you instantly dismiss the idea of eating Dahlia roots as some kind of hippy-food, bush-tucker gimmick consider this: runner beans were first introduced to the UK for their ornamental flowers, while Dahlias were originally introduced as a promising root veg. It looks like we simply got our horticultural wires crossed!
First domesticated by the Aztecs for their tasty, sweet potato-like roots, Dahlia ‘yams’ were once a staple food as important as the avocados, tomatoes and sweetcorn that they were eaten alongside. Yet being 100% resistant to the dreaded potato blight, super easy to grow & offering up a summer-long display of dazzling flowers to boot, I believe they beat the humble spud hands down for the urban foodie grower that also wants a pretty garden and an easy life from their tiny space.
PICKING THE RIGHT VARIETY (THE CRUCIAL BIT)
Sadly, as they have been bred from hundreds of years exclusively for the size and colour of their flowers the flavour of Dahlia ‘yams’ is rather variable, spanning from amazingly sweet and waxy – like a Jersey Royal spud – to perfectly edible but a little watery. On one hand this makes growing Dahlia ‘yams’ a bit of a foodie Russian roulette, but on the other, who knows you may yet discover the world’s tastiest kind in your own back yard!
In my tiny back garden trials – helped immensely by the kind advice of the National Collection of Dahlias – I have discovered that the big ‘Cactus’ flowered types tend to produce the largest, juicest roots with the yellow and red types generally firmer and nuttier than the rest (which I find the most tasty). But there may well be even better strains out there! Give my recipe below a go in the autumn and get back to me on your results. I’d love to hear your views!
Related to Jerusalem artichokes, Dahlia roots have a crisp, refreshing apple-like texture and mild carrot/celery flavour when raw and work great in salads and stir fries. Try them as a substitute for water chestnuts for example or grated in a coleslaw. Their juicy crunch and sweetness means they even work in fruit salads, especially when paired with similar textures like apples.
However my favourite way to eat them is cooked, much like a potato, in soups, stews & rosti. The key here is to slice or grate the roots, then squeeze out some of the excess water to concentrate their lovely nutty flavour and give them a firmer bite.
DAHLIA & RED ONION ROSTI
Crisp, sweet and with a hazelnut-like richness, Dahlia ‘yams’ knock the socks of any old spud in these Eastern European-inspired rosti.
STEP 1 - Dig up your Dahlias when the first hard frosts blacken all their leaves – usually in early November where I live – and give them a good scrub.
For this recipe you will need about 1kg of fresh roots, which roughly equates to those of 1 good sized plant. (You can grow up to 4 per square metre)
N.B. Never eat dry roots straight from a garden centre as they will be chemically treated (not to mention rock hard and dried up). After a season of ‘detoxing’ in the garden, they will be fresh, crisp and perfectly safe to eat.
STEP 2 – Peel the ‘yams’. Unless you are going to cook them straight away, it would be a good idea to dunk them in a bowl of water – just like you would potatoes – to stop them going brown in contact with the air.
STEP 3- Roughly grate the ‘yams’ with 1 small onion & squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. Then wrap all the shavings in a clean tea towel and twist it to squeeze out as much excess water as possible. This concentrates their flavour and gives them a firmer, meatier texture.
STEP 4 – Combine the Dahlia & onion mixture in a bowl with 2 eggs, 6tbsp of flour & a grating of nutmeg.
STEP 5 - Season well with salt and pepper and give the whole lot a good mix to combine. You should end up with a thick, chunky ‘dough’ as pictured below.
STEP 6 – Grab small handfuls of the mix and squeeze them between your palms to create little patties – about 10cm in diameter and 1cm thick. Fry them in olive oil over a medium heat in a large frying pan until golden brown.
STEP 7 – Serve with a dollop of cream fraiche, a few slivers of smoked salmon, a wedge of lime and a scattering of dill. Winter blues? What winter blues!