By Leda Meredith
Two delicious vegetables plus several kinds of herbal medicine from one plant: what’s not to love? The plant is burdock (Arctium lappa and A. minus). One of the two vegetables it produces is in season for only a few weeks, and that season is now.
I often say “One person’s weeds are another person’s dinner,” and burdock is a perfect example of this. Although it is routinely weeded out of Prospect Park as an invasive species, in Japan it is cultivated as the root vegetable gobo (you can purchase it under that name at the Park Slope Food Coop).
Gobo, or burdock root, is delicious in stir-fries (see recipe below). It can be harvested anytime from spring through fall.
The root is also the part of the burdock plant usually used for medicine. Burdock roots are taken internally as a blood purifier, digestive aid, and to treat chronic skin problems including psoriasis. However, the leaves can also be used medicinally: Tammy South-Price of Worldwide Wildcrafters & Wildforagers reports that an infusion of the leaves can also be used externally for psoriasis. Kat Morgenstern of Sacred Earth uses the leaves as a styptic healing bandage. Sara Anne Corrigan reports that a friend who is a nurse uses burdock internally to treat and prevent hangovers (I’ll let you know).
Burdock grows in sun or part shade, and is plentiful in Prospect Park. It is a biennial that grows a rosette of leaves in its first year. The leaves can be huge—up to 2’ long and 1’ wide—and unlike potential “lookalike” plants, Burdock leaves are fuzzy all over and whitish on the undersides. Although untoothed, viewed sideways along their edges the leaves are ruffled like a girl’s skirt.
In its second year, burdock sends up a stalk that will eventually bear brush-like purplish flowers followed by the burrs from which the plant gets its common name. The burrs, which will stick to almost anything including your clothes and each other, were supposedly the inspiration for Velcro.
What you want are the flower stalks before there are any flowers. These are in season for a few weeks in mid-spring, and are cooked like the yummy Italian vegetable cardoon (see recipe below). Burdock “cardoons” are one of my favorite wild edibles.
The roots of first-year burdock plants are good for eating in any season except winter. They are beige-white taproots growing a foot or more straight down and have a reputation for being hard to dig up. My favorite method for harvesting them is to wait for one of the days when volunteers in Prospect Park are weeding them out on the paths near Long Meadow. They pile the burdock, tasty roots and all, alongside the paths and are happy to let me take away as much as I can carry!
BURDOCK (GOBO) STIR FRY
1/2 lb. burdock root
1/4 lb. carrots
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tsps. honey
2 Tbsp. mirin
1 Tbsp. white wine
1 Tbsp. sesame seeds
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1. Peel the burdock root and julienne it into matchstick sized strips. The peeling is optional. If you do peel the roots, you will have a milder dish. For a strong, mushroom-like flavor, wash but don’t peel.
2. Soak the burdock matchsticks in water for 30 minutes.
3. While the burdock is soaking, peel the carrot and julienne it into matchsticks as you did with the burdock root.
4. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium low heat, shaking the pan often, for a few minutes until fragrant and just starting to color. Do not allow to burn.
5. Mix the soy sauce, honey, mirin, and wine.
6. Drain the burdock in a colander. Spread on a kitchen towel and pat dry.
7. Put the vegetable oil in a frying pan or wok over high heat.
8. Add burdock and fry for 2 minutes, stirring.
9. Add carrots in the hot pan and fry for 2 more minutes, stirring constantly.
10. Stir the soy sauce mixture into the vegetables. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds.
11. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
Note: This recipe originally appeared in my first book, Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes
MARINATED BURDOCK “CARDOONS”
1/2 lb. burdock flower stalks
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or ½ tsp. dried
1. Remove leaves from the burdock flower stalks. Peel. Cut into 1-inch sections.
2. Cook in boiling water for 5-10 minutes until tender. Drain.
3. Toss with the other ingredients. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour before serving, or refrigerate for up to 3 weeks. Serve with good bread.
Editor’s Note: Scared to scrounge for Burdock yourself? Fear not: Burdock will be one of the plants Leda will be looking for on her next foraging tour in Prospect Park, for Green Edge NYC on June 4th.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her upcoming classes and events is on her blog at www.ledameredith.com