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Wild, down in the dirt and delicious

Burdock, found in Baltimore's parks and yards, has pesky burrs but tasty tubers.

burdock saute

Braised burdock and carrot with sesame seeds is a popular dish in Japan.

Photo by: Marta Hanson

At Thanksgiving, I needed to know how long to cook a range of root vegetables – turnips, parsnips, carrots and rutabaga – with caramelized onions, so I turned to the venerable “Joy of Cooking.”

To my surprise, I found a page entitled “About wild greens, shoots, roots, seeds and berries.” Who knew the classic American cookbook, first published in 1936, had a foraging wild side to it?

I was pleased to see that burdock was mentioned in the J of C because I’d been thinking about digging up and trying the roots of this wild plant, better known for its annoying burrs that stick to dogs’ fur and humans’ clothes.

In fact, Swiss inventor George de Mestral came up with Velcro in the 1940s based on the burdock burr’s clever hook-and-loop system that he saw under a microscope.

Joy’s Wild Side

Burdock advice was included by Joy of Cooking authors Irma and Marion Rombauer alongside a host of other edibles I’ve been keen to track down: purslane, miner’s lettuce, wild mustard, pepper grasses, plantains, dandelion, sorrels, Canadian burnet, winter cress, chickweed, spiderwort, and even milkweed and hemerocallis flower buds.

Root veggies from the wild: a burdock dug up in Wyman Park by urban forager Marta Hanson.

Forager Marta Hanson with freshly-dug burdock. (Photo by Martha Stauss)

Some of these wild salad-makings are just fun to say: Lamb’s quarters, bladder campion, cleavers, cheese mallows, yellow rocket cress, sheep sorrel, shepherd’s purse and nettles.

The authors warn that even after parboiling five minutes and cooking another 10 minutes  many of these greens often remain slightly bitter.

“Unless you are working up a real or imaginary survival program, their continued use is of questionable benefit,” they write. “Patience and Lilliputian appetites are a necessary prerequisite,” they say of one of these plants.

Okay, so Irma and Marion weren’t dyed-in-the-wool fellow foragers, but they had a sense of humor and were game to give these “weeds” a try.

Stalking the Burdock Root

Which brings me back to the wonders of burdock root. The Brits famously enjoy it in a dandelion-burdock soft drink (known as “D & B”) and even in a beer. The Japanese call it gobo and pickle it for sushi and use it in a braised carrot & burdock root stir-fry called Kinpira Gobo. (recipe below.) New York foodies are using it for all sorts of  New York foodie dishes. Herbalists consider dried burdock a diuretic and a blood-purifying agent and even the pharmaceutical industry is turning to burdock as “a rich source for secondary metabolites used, for example, against the avian influenza virus.”

Burdock, in the Arctium genus, is abundant in Maryland. The three species here are all non-native, edible and generally considered noxious weeds. I had never knowingly tried them; though I quite possibly ate them pickled in Japanese sushi. I decided it was time to go find some and see what I could do with them.

Burdock flowers, which dry into those sticky burrs that cling to fabric and animals' fur. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Burdock flowers, which dry into those sticky burrs that cling to fabric and animals’ fur. (Photo by Fern Shen)

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving I met a fellow forager Martha Stauss, at the Wyman Park green along Stony Run.

Martha, an environmental scientist at a small landscape architecture firm, part-time earth science instructor at Community College of Baltimore County and seller of native plants, still finds time to forage.

Right next to where many people let their dogs run off leash there was a large crop of burdock still with clumps of purplish-pink flowers. Figuring that none of the dog owners would grieve the absence of burdock, we got to work with pickaxe and shovels.

We learned quickly that, at this time of year, the roots are very long, soft and break off easily. The pickaxe helped break the ground, but the shovel allowed greater finesse in loosening up the earth around each plant. Still the mighty burdock burrows deep.

Burdock's heart-shaped leaves can be large. (Photo credit: sierrapotomac.org)

Burdock’s heart-shaped leaves can be large. (Photo credit: sierrapotomac.org)

Martha spent extra time shoveling out the buried broken ends, as well as picking off sticky burrs from her hair, cotton gloves, jacket, and socks. (Lesson learned: use leather or plastic covered gloves.)

Within 15 minutes we had a healthy crop of just over half-a-dozen roots.

We did our best to cover up the pits and then split the loot and called in the dogs. (They’d been more interested in each other than digging for burdock roots, though one still managed to get “burred.”)

Burdock Root à la Jerusalem Artichoke

Back in the kitchen, the Joy of Cooking recommends that burdock roots be carefully peeled prior to cooking and prepared as you would Jerusalem artichokes. (Their recipe involves boiling them until just tender and then dressing them with  butter, parsley and hot pepper sauce.)

Burdock roots peeled and ready for slicing. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Burdock roots peeled and ready for slicing. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Martha peeled and roasted her burdock rather than boiling it and reported “It got pretty fibrous, but tasted like potato.” She wondered if  her addition of sesame oil and a glaze of liquid aminos might have been the main reason it was tasty.

My own experience with this initial harvest was a bit of a bust – I discovered burdock turns black pretty quickly if not processed upon peeling. But, using burdock dug out of my rather neglected garden, I had great success with an on-line Japanese recipe for Braised Carrot and Burdock “Gobo” Root.

It turned out delicious on rice, with the burdock adding a flavor like an earthy parsnip, almost Daikon-like. The only problem was some of the roots were too woody to eat. (Next time I’ll make sure to look for the youngest, tenderest burdock and peel off the outer skin down to the softer core.)

KINPIRA GOBO
(Braised Carrot & Burdock Root)
(Prep Time: 15 minutes Cook Time: 15 minutes)
(Yield: Serves 3-4 as side dish)

Ingredients:
1 burdock root
1/3 carrot
1 Tbsp. sesame oil
1 Tbsp. roasted white sesame seeds
Ichimi Togarashi (Red pepper flakes)
Ito Togarashi (Red chili pepper threads) (garnish)
(Note: I did not use the red pepper flakes or threads.)

Martha Stauss digging wild burdock. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Martha Stauss digging wild burdock. (Photo by Marta Hanson)

Seasonings
3/4 cup dashi stock
(This is made from a type of seaweed called Dashi Kombu and Japanese bonito (fish) flakes. You can make it from scratch but one can also get ready made packets at Asian markets without much loss of flavor.)
2 Tbsp. sake
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. mirin
1 Tbsp. soy sauce

Instructions:
1. Peel gobo’s (burdock) skin with peeler or traditionally we scrape (peel) the skin off with the back of kitchen knife. (Make sure you peel off the thick fibrous layer.) Then, diagonally slice thinly so that each piece is about 2 inch length. Collect some of the slices and cut into thin matchbox strips. Soak the gobo in water or vinegar water (just one drop of vinegar would do). Change water a couple of times until the water becomes clean. Then leave the gobo in water until you are ready to stirfry.
2. Cut carrots into matchbox strips.
3. In a frying pan, heat oil over medium high and stir fry gobo first. Then add carrot next after you cook gobo for a few minutes.
4. Add seasonings and cook until most of liquid evaporates.
5. When the liquid is almost gone, add sesame oil and sprinkle sesame seeds and the
Ichimi Togarashi (red pepper flakes).

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  • bmorepanic

    Digging up plants from public parks is not a good thing to advocate.  I  have two big reasons.  First, while a few people might be fairly respectful of the land, a lot won’t be.  Having dirt wash out from a few widely spaced holes is one thing, but a few thousand holes is something completely different.

    The second reason is that the land itself has very different histories.  Just because its now a park doesn’t mean it wasn’t used for some other purpose or is “the good land”.  Some lands were manufacturing in the distant past, some have periodic soakings from our aging sewers or from petro-chemicals washed down from streets. Some parks are built on landfills currently containing a witches brew of toxic and non-toxic trash.  Some inner city park land can have a surprising amount of lead contamination.   

    Reason 2.A.  Just because there ain’t no visible poop on it at the moment is not a warranty that said veg is poop-free or that the glistening of the leaves is water and not pee.

    • discer

      I wouldn’t worry too much about more than a handful of adventerous eaters occasionally digging up these and other roots and greens. Surely not enough to cause a erosion issue. While I admire Marta’s zeal I prefer to do my foraging at Eddie’s.

      • bmorepanic

        Sometimes in parks, the vegetation, no matter what it is, is all that is retaining the ground on slopes.  Small diggings sometimes combine with other issues to create bigger problems – particularly on steep slopes. 

        Plus, I think of what else people will feel free to help themselves to. In my neck of the woods, people have “foraged” trees, flowering plants, shrubs and groundcover landscape plantings.  Kinda to the tune of stripping every bit of new plantings in some areas.  I kinda doubt they are eating it – its more for home landscaping use or -umm- for profit.  Perhaps we have more creative thinkers.

  • FunTymer

    Kudos to the author for trying something out that is local, seasonal, and different!

    However I agree with bmorepanic - most urban soils are contaminated due to an array of sources including ineffective sewerage, underground tanks and previous industrial land uses. Probably best to look for plants like these outside of the City. I doubt that digging the plants would amount any serious sedimentation problems. 

  • Marta Hanson

    That kind of digging up vegetation is not foraging, that is stealing! I take a clear ethical stance against. On the contrary, I support and have participated in “guerilla landscaping” where one adds plants to beautify otherwise neglected public spaces. In the case of Burdock, however, it is the kind of non-native invasive species that Park Rangers ask volunteers to help clean out so native species have a better chance to multiply.

  • Lee Watkins IV

    Burdock contains very rare long chain EFAs, generally hard to get except from fish, and the body is not very good at making them.  EPA, DHA which promotes brain growth and development, and are generally sorely lacking in the American Diet.  Plants from Asteraceae store sugar in the taproot primarily in the form of Inulin (Not to be confused with Insulin.), which promotes the the growth of good bacterias in the gut.  Foods naturally high in inulin have been seen as “stimulants of good health” for centuries. Similar ex. in Asteraceae family is Yacón, Jerusalem artichoke, Elecampane, Dandelion, Echinacea, Chicory..  It’s worth noting that the immune-system effects of echinacea are caused by alkamides, which occur mostly in E. angustifolia and E. purpurea but not in E. pallida.    it has been found in other plants in the family such as Spilanthes, and Jerusalem artichoke shows some similar characteristics, but  the contents of wild plants, including Burdock, have not been well studied.  Alkylamides bind particularly to human CB2 and to a much lesser degree to CB1 cannabinoid receptors.  These Alkylamides have similar potency to that of THC at the CB2
    receptor, with THC being around 1.5 times stronger.  However, potency is dramatically less than that of THC at
    the psychoactive CB1 receptor.  As a result, these plants have some of the heath benefits of cannabis, but at similar or lower potency and with exceedingly low psychoactive effect. 

  • baltimorebrew

     

    From the author:
    “Thanks Lee for all the medicinal information on Burdock. I tend to leave
    that kind of detail out in favor of a narrative that will keep readers
    engaged but appreciate having the further wonders of Burdock provided in
    the comments. I also want to thank the earlier commenters for your
    concerns. In particular, “Bmorepanic” raised three I wanted to address.

    First, indeed there must be an agreed upon civic etiquette for urban
    foraging to work. I drafted five principles but haven’t yet published
    them in my column. For now I’ll post them here:

    1) First ask yourself if you need permission before you pick. It isn’t
    cool to trespass on someone’s private property or corporately owned
    land.  I know several friends who have more fruit than they can harvest
    and ask me to harvest for them. But you shouldn’t assume this is the
    case for strangers.

    2) Only harvest what you can eat and process. Leave some produce for the wildlife and other urban foragers who will follow you.

    3) Leave the sources in as good condition as you found it. You should
    pick selectively without damaging the source. You want to be able to
    return year after year. Or even next week!

    4) Be aware of possible toxins. There may be pesticides, oil, paint
    chips, and other pollutants that have contaminated the produce.

    5) Finally, make sure you wash whatever you have harvested before consuming.

    Secondly, most folks concerned about plants on public lands want the
    invasive non-native ones out so that the struggling native plants have a
    better chance to spread. Burdock is not only non-native, it is also
    widely considered to be a noxious weed. A hot new thing in the foraging
    world is to team up with ecologists concerned for native plants by
    eating invading species: http://eattheinvaders.org/

    In this light, harvesting Burdock is a good way to participate in this new “eat the invaders” movement.

    And finally, foraging on the edges of a dog park or any path for that
    matter has obvious risks! But for Burdock, the roots were underground,
    deeply underground, and two, I instructed readers to follow the #5 rule
    of forager’s thumb above. And then of course peel off the outer fibrous
    potentially “toxic” layers.

    Marta Hanson”

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