Healing Kitchen

Wacky Ingredients: Burdock
Let's face it, burdock will never win a vegetable beauty contest. This brown-skinned (and often soil-caked) root looks like something you would pull from your garden and throw away, not eat. But the surprise is how good it tastes. It's got the sturdy, starchy texture of a root vegetable and a delicate earthy-sweet flavor remarkably similar to artichoke hearts.

When I started the research for this article, I didn't know much about burdock. I had certainly eaten it--mostly in Japanese cuisine, where it's called gobo--but I hadn't paid it much attention. My first enlightenment came from a local burdock grower, who told me that burdock is rich in minerals and that it can grow as long as four feet. However at the farmers' market, most of the specimens I found were about one foot long. It wasn't until I looked in my produce market in Chinatown that I found burdock roots, imported from Japan, that were over three feet long.

Burdock Tips
Burdock root is available at least twice a year, depending on the local source of the root. Some growers only harvest in the fall, while others also harvest in the early spring. My produce market in Chinatown, however, has burdock imported from Japan year round.

Selecting: Burdock root can be found in two very distinct forms that are equally common: Some roots look like skinny fire wood while others can resemble ginseng--having multiple, branching roots with lots of nooks and crannies. In either case, burdock should be firm, wrinkle-free, and heavy. Some sources recommend that the roots should ideally be 10" to 16" long and about 1/2" to 1" in diameter, but the 3-foot sample that I found tasted just as good as the smaller roots.

Preparing: Although burdock may come covered with soil, especially if you buy it at a farmers' market, the peel of the root is brown and shouldn't be confused for dirt. Just scrub the burdock lightly with a vegetable brush to remove any soil: The peel contains nutrients and shouldn't be removed.

You'll often find lots of fine hair-like roots on the burdock that should be trimmed off. Trim off the stem end and any remnants of leaves. Trim off the very tip of the root if it looks soft and black. (At some markets you may find fresh burdock with pale green leaves attached. Some cooks claim that these young leaves, when cooked, taste like asparagus.)

Burdock Trivia

     In Japan, burdock is thought to purify the blood, cleanse the body of toxins, and improve liver functions.  The wild burdock plant produces spiny burrs, which are the "cockleburs" that stick to your clothes when you walk through a meadow.  In Ireland, you can buy burdock and dandelion soda.  Burdock is especially high in a carbohydrate called inulin, which is known to activate particular immune cells that may help alleviate skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.  In some parts of the world, burdock is prepared as a tea and drunk as a spring tonic to rejuvenate the body.  In folk medicine, burdock is used to make poultices or salves for external use. Modern science has found evidence that the inulin in burdock has anti-inflammatory properties.
The Recipes
Since my main experience with burdock was in Japanese restaurants, I decided to start my recipe development with what I knew. One of my favorite dishes is burdock tossed in a dressing of miso, mirin, sake, and sesame paste. In Burdock & Parsnip with Peanut Dressing, I found that by combining creamy peanut butter, soy sauce, and red wine vinegar, I could duplicate the taste with more accessible ingredients. The addition of parsnip complements the texture of the burdock but with a different root vegetable sweetness.

Because burdock's flavor and texture is so like that of artichoke hearts, I decided to see how it would fare in a typical Italian artichoke recipe. Close your eyes as you taste Fettuccine with Burdock & Peas and you won't have any trouble imagining artichoke hearts.

If you want to experience burdock with the simplest seasonings but the boldest flavor, try the Burdock with Fresh Thyme; it's easy to prepare and allows you to focus your taste buds on this versatile vegetable.

These are only three recipes, but in my new-found love for this interesting vegetable, I plan to explore other ways to cook it.

Author: Grace Young
Date Published: 05/07/2000
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