I wouldn’t doubt it. I’d never encountered burdock shoots at a Farmers Market until Roger Konka of Springwater Farm brought them; neatly wrapped bundles of tall, thin, bendy, minty-olive green fibrous stalks that arched over, bowing at the crowd. Velvety leaves brushed customers as they passed by.
And passed by they did. Intimidated? Daunted? Uninterested? Some were curious. They inquired, then, looking puzzled, moved away toward the more familiar mushrooms. Others paused, considered, then thought not, or at least not today. A few reveled in the glory of a new vegetable to try, having thought there was nothing to baffle them at the market that day, pleasantly surprised at their discovery.
When Roger first asked me if I had heard of eating the shoots of young spring burdock, my, “YES!” nearly leaped out at him. I felt a wash of nostalgia, of familial ties to my ancestors, a connection to the past. Although I don’t recall eating the burdock myself (though my uncle seems to think that I must have at some point), I know the family stories that surround this unusual wild plant.
Uncle Philip is the LaSusa family story teller. He is the keeper and sharer of our verbal history. He recalls the hunts for burdock root, and tells this tale:
Grandma’s family was very poor when she was growing up, and they had to rely on their wits and resources to keep themselves well fed. Recent immigrants from Italy, they also longed for flavors of their home country that were not readily available in the United States at that time – like cardoons. That’s where the burdock comes in – the young spring shoots resemble in flavor and texture the stalks of cardoons. Like cardoons, they have a flavor reminiscent of artichoke, with a pleasant bitterness, and they are long and fibrous, needing a similar cooking treatment. Wild burdock is in fact a relative of the artichoke.
“They hunted burdock in the local mountains” (the small mountains around Highland in the Hudson Valley, New York) “in the spring, before the leaves got big, mostly in May” (the season is extended a bit here in Oregon, since the spring sometimes lingers longer, without the rush of heat that New York experiences in June). Once the stalks bolt and the leaves grow large, the time is up for harvesting burdock, as the edible center becomes woody and unpleasantly bitter.
Uncle Philip remembers, “Uncle Leo had a secret burdock patch and in May, he and Aunt Martha and Grandma and Grandpa, and some other assorted aunts and uncles would go to the secret place and pick bags and bags of burdock. Grandma would then process the burdock and freeze it so she could make the fritters all year long, until the next spring.”
Burdock root, or wild gobo, is very popular in Japan, though the Japanese shoppers that I’ve been encountering at the Farmers Market do not have experience using the spring shoots. I have read that the small, soft young leaves are sometimes eaten in Japan. The few leaves that I tried were perhaps a bit too mature, but not unpleasant. The gobo roots I have seen at Farmers Markets in the fall, and are used as a root vegetables or to make pickles.
On a side note, Roger enlightens me with the fact that burdock burrs, those pesky orbs of the mature plant that grab and cling to your clothing as you charge through a patch of weeds in the woods, were the inspiration for Velcro. A true story – George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, began working on the hook and loop fastening after a hunting trip in 1948. After removing many burrs from his pooch and his clothing, he became curious about their adhering ability, and observed how the barbed hooks attached to fabric under a microscope. It took until 1955 to perfect the product, which he named Velcro, derived from the French words velour (velvet) and crochet (hooks). This doesn’t have anything to do with the edibility of the plant, but it is a fascinating fact nonetheless….
Here’s the recipe:
“I don’t know if you remember this recipe of Grandma’s, but we all loved them. It was based on a recipe from Sicily that your great-grandmother used to make. Originally in Italy the fritters were made with cardoon, however many years ago instead of cardoons, people, at least around here, substituted burdock.” – Uncle Philip LaSusa
You can easily substitute cardoon for the burdock in this recipe. Either work exceptionally well. Serve the fritters on their own, with a green salad, with a fried egg or grilled sausages, or with a little tomato sauce.
Prepare the stalks:
With paring knife, cut the long stalks into manageable lenths, then pare away the outer fibrous peel. You will use the inner, white, tender center. The outer peel comes away easily, with little effort. Just get the knife into the fibrous part and pull downward. It will give way and come clean of the core. Trim away any strands of fiber left behind.
Like artichokes, the peeled stalk will oxidize rather quickly – either work fast or hold the peeled stems in acidulated water (water with lemon) until you are ready to cook them. Chop the cores into pieces and boil until tender in plenty of boiling salted water. The abundance of water and salt will draw out any unpleasant bitterness. The cooked burdock will still be slightly bitter, or not bitter at all, depending on maturity and, well, it’s a wild thing – stalks vary from one plant to another much more than with a cultivated vegetable. Either way, it should taste pleasant. Chop the cooked burdock into rough bits.
To preserve the burdock for use throughout the year, place the well drained cooled boiled burdock pieces in a freezer bag or container, or better yet, seal them in a vacuum packed freezer bag, and freeze.
For the fritters:
Make fresh bread crumbs and mix with grated romano and parsley. Use a ratio of about 2 cups bread to 3/4-1 cup cheese to 1/2 to 3/4 cup chopped parsley.
Beat a couple of eggs in a bowl.
Grab a handful of stems and shape them into a fritter (about 2 inches by 3 inches). Dip the stems into the beaten egg and then into the crumbs. Mold with your hands so that it all holds together. Note that I have tried this method, and it is messy and tricky, but delicious for the effort. If you have not the patience, you can also bind the burdock bits with some of the egg and crumb, then coat with more crumb and continue. The result is different, but still plenty good.
Fry the fritters in hot olive oil.
At the market, I peeled and boiled the burdock stalks as directed above, but instead of making fritters, I just sautéed the round pieces in garlic oil and seasoned them with sea salt. They were delicious, reminiscent of artichoke stalks.
Incidentally, I spoke to Uncle Philip on the phone just the other day. I was excited to tell him that I had cooked the burdock at the Farmers Market. I told him that Roger had harvested it on his farm, where it grows wild, and was selling it at the market. “Why would anyone want to buy that?” he responded. “Well,” I lauged, “not everyone knows where Uncle Leo’s secret burdock patch is.”