Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Burdock

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Can you imagine taking broccoli pills or drinking spinach tea? How about a tincture of kale? Burdock is the rare plant that has so many beneficial properties that it's not just good for you - it's good enough to be considered by many to be medicinal. It can be found in the supplement section of the health food store where you can take it as a powder, a pill, a tea or a tincture. Alternatively, you can feature it as part of a tasty meal.

A Brief History

A bit of historical research on burdock hints at the plant's far reaching legacy. Its history threads its way through guides to Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbalist's sites, web pages devoted to Wiccan and Druid beliefs as well as modern culinary compendiums. Burdock has been well loved for a long time. 

Burdock continues to be part of the party at Stonehenge where a tonic of the root, popular since the pillars were constructed, is traditionally imbibed during equinox celebrations. And if you go for acupuncture, don't be surprised if you are handed a warm cup of burdock tea. The root grows deep in both Celtic and Asian culinary and healing traditions. 

While burdock is native to Europe and Northern Asia, it is now widespread throughout the United States. It grows so freely it is labeled a weed in some areas where its prolific nature has earned the plant a bit of a reputation. In Japan, parts of Europe, and increasingly in the gardens and farms of the US, it is cultivated as a vegetable. 

Factual Nibbles

  • Burdock, like artichoke, is a member of the sunflower botanical family (Asteraceae).
  • Burdock is a common ingredient in root beer recipes.
  • The tenacious burrs that bloom on mature plants cling to everything they brush against. They were the inspiration for Velcro® hook and loop fasteners.

Cultivation 

Burdock is a biennial, meaning that it has a lifecycle of two years. In the spring, the small leafy rosettes form. As the plant grows, it sets down deep roots that easily exceed a foot or more in length and are brown to black in color. Frost will blacken the leaves. The second spring, the plant rejuvenates and sends up an impressive stalk, which can range in height from three to over six feet depending on the variety. From the stalk sprout numerous round flowers, which are covered with prickly barbs and purple petals that bloom between the months of June and October. 

Burdock grows in the wild and can be foraged in most of the United States. You can find it along roadsides, in meadows and in vacant lots where it is allowed to undergo its two-year lifespan. It can be planted as well.  To grow burdock, sow it from seed in the spring or early summer in well-drained soil in full-sun or part-shade. 

Environmental Impact 

Burdock is extremely hardy and requires very little in the way of inputs to thrive. It self-seeds and can take over a garden if allowed to do so. 

Characteristics 

There are two main varieties of burdock, Lesser (also called Common) Burdock, Arctium minus, and Great Burdock, Arctium lappa. In the field, you can identify both varieties of young burdock by the wooly, tender, ground-hugging rosette of leaves that indicate the initial growth of the plant. 

As the plant matures, slight differences occur between the two varieties. Most notably, the stalk grows of A. lappa grow very tall, often up to nine feet. A. minus will reach only about six feet. From the stalks sprout stems, solid ones for A. lappa and hollow stems on A. minus. Both have large fan-like leaves that taper in size toward the top of the plant. Toward the end of its life cycle, all burdocks bloom in numerous puffballs that blossom into purple flowers before going to seed. 

Found in the market, burdock roots look more like something you'd throw on the woodpile than something you'd eat. They are long (often two feet or more) and thin, with a tough brown skin that should be removed before cooking. 

Nutrition and Effects on the Body 

The plant is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat a variety of conditions ranging from constipation to mumps. Burdock contains phenolic acids, quercetin, and luteolin, which are all powerful antioxidants and the plant is often sought out for its detoxifying abilities. Burdock contains inulin, a natural dietary fiber that improves digestion and promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

What to Do with It and Cooking

The most commonly eaten part of burdock is the root. You can find it in farmers markets and Asian groceries where it is sometimes labeled "gobo." Select roots that are about an inch in diameter without a lot of scarring or cracks. Like carrots, they should be firm enough to snap when bent. Soft or rubbery burdock is old and dried out. 

To cook burdock root you need to meticulously clean it - it's often crusted with dirt that gets into the skin's crevices. If you are hand-harvesting very young, tender roots, you can get away with giving them a good scrub. For older roots, over six inches, you would be best to give the root a rinse and use a vegetable peeler to remove the outer layer of the root and the dirt that goes with it. 

You can cut up burdock anyway you like. Slice it into coins or strips or julienne or shred the root. It oxidizes quickly, though, so have a bowl of acidulated water (2 cups water mixed with two tablespoons lemon juice) handy and add prepped burdock to it to prevent browning. 

You can also eat the leaves and stems of the plant, though they can be quite bitter. The seeds are also used in medicinal preparations.

You can try burdock root in lots of different recipes:

In soups and stews - You can toss burdock in your soup pot or make a lovely Chinese inspired stew.

Sautéed - Add burdock to your favorite stir-fry!

Braised - Kinpira is a traditional Japanese side dish of burdock and carrot.

Pickled - Burdock is often pickled and use in sushi, but this pickle from Karen Solomon's "Asian Pickles" stands on its own.  

As a soda - The Brits enjoy it as a soft drink, similar to root beer.

As tea - You can buy burdock tea bags to take as a health tonic or brew up your own.

Storage

Fresh Burdock can be stored in the refrigerator's crisper drawer, cut into sections of a manageable length and loosely wrapped in a damp towel or reusable wrap for up to one week. 

Preservation

Burdock can be shaved into slivers and dried to be added to soups or stews or brewed into tea. It can also be pickled. 

Recipe

Braised Root Vegetables

One of the most straightforward ways to enjoy burdock root - and a great introduction to the vegetable if you've never tasted it before - is to simply braise it. Older or larger roots can be a bit tough, so to combat that a bit, it helps to slice the root on the bias, cut diagonally across the root rather than perpendicular to it. I also like to combine it with a few other vegetables so that I get a little bite of burdock balanced by some more familiar flavors.  The vanilla in this recipe pairs really well with parsnips and turnips and the white vegetable trio looks really pretty on the holiday table. 

Ingredients:

3 burdock roots, about 2' in length, peeled and cut into 1" diagonal slices and added to a bowl of acidulated water

1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1" slices

1 pound turnips, peeled and cut into 1" cubes

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 vanilla bean

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:

Drain the burdock and add all of the ingredients, including a pinch each of salt and pepper, to a medium saucepan. Add 1 cup of water, cover and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 3-4 minutes to par-cook the vegetables. Remove the lid and continue to simmer until the water has boiled off and the vegetables are tender but not entirely cooked through, about another five minutes. Continue to gently sauté the vegetables in the resulting glaze until coated and glossy, about one to two minutes. Remove the vanilla pod from the pot (you can freeze it in an airtight container and reuse up to three times), adjust the seasoning, and serve.


Sherri Brooks Vinton  wants you to have a more delicious life. Her writing, talks and hands-on workshops teach fellow eaters how to find, cook and preserve local, seasonal, farm friendly food. To find out more, visit www.sherribrooksvinton.com.  

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