Friday, October 28, 2016

Wild Food Spotlight 4: Burdock

This is the third in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin.
Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin:
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It's pretty soggy out these days. What remains of our wild and cultivated leafy greens is mostly melting away in a grey-brown sludge, battered by fallen branches and covered by the remains of other plants. But underneath the nearly-frosty ground, the roots are at their prime; ready for eating, canning, roasting, drying and steeping.

Similar to other members of the Aster family such as Canada thistle, dandelion, artichoke and chicory, burdock root contains plenty of the dietary fibre, inulin. Among other benefits, inulin supports the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestines(1). As a diuretic, starchy root vegetable, and source of inulin, burdock is used by many populations both medicinally and as food.(2)

Identifying burdock: The easiest way to identify burdock is to find burs. If you walk near the edge of the trails or roadsides around here, you probably already know where to find them, unless you've already carried them all away on your sleeves and boot-laces. They're those brown prickly velcro-like seed-heads that cling to their old brown stems at about knee-height, this time of year. (Yes, Velcro was indeed invented when Swiss engineer George de Mestral was inspired by similarly clingy burdock burs!(3))

This large plant is conspicuous in summer, with its broad, slightly-fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves, and magenta thistle flowers or green (and later brown) burs all over its tall stems. However at this time of year it's beginning to look rather sorry. The year-old burdock plants (those that haven't yet flowered) will generally look like a handful of yellowing limp leaves, radiating out from the centre. That's where you'll find the root. In older plants that have already flowered, the root will be at the base of those long brown stalks of burs.

Note: Do not confuse burdock with foxglove (medicinal in small amounts but can cause heart-failure), which has a very different scent and diamond-shaped, but similarly large and fuzzy leaves. If you're new to burdock harvesting, take a guidebook and make sure you're harvesting from the correct plant.

Harvesting and cooking: The best roots for eating come from those plants that haven't yet flowered. The older roots are inferior, and better dug in spring. You can dig the roots up any time of year, but mid- to late-autumn is when they're best, after a summer of good growth, and before they freeze. 

Dig down very deep, pulling out the whole root, which can be very long. Give the roots a scrub, and then peel them. I find a potato peeler works quite well. Now you can chop them up or sliver them and cook them as you would parsnips or other such roots: add to soups, sauté, ferment (as in kimchi) or stir-fry with other vegetables. My husband wants me to point out that they can be rather bitter and maybe not best as the main component of a dish.

Fresh burdock roots don't keep very well, and lose some of their health benefits as they're stored in the fridge, so you may prefer to harvest them fresh rather than store them.

Tea or Coffee: One of the most delicious uses of burdock that I know of is as a tea or coffee substitute. You can cut your peeled burdock into very small pieces and dry it, then store it in a jar until needed for steeping. There are three basic ways of steeping burdock root for a hot drink:

Raw infusion: Simply steep the raw dried roots. This is very weak and 'leafy', and frankly not very enjoyable!

Roasted and steeped as tea: either over a stove or in an oven, slowly heat the dry burdock root pieces until they are brown (but not black!). Then steep as you would regular tea. The result is a rich and earthy-flavoured transparent brown infusion that tastes lovely on its own or with a bit of milk or sugar, if that is how you like your tea.

Ground and filtered as coffee: Take the roasted dried burdock and grind it in a coffee mill. Use it in a drip-filter or French press, and you'll have a heavier, heartier drink, with a slightly more bitter flavour than if it's just infused.

Happy autumn! May your days be filled with harvesting adventures, and your evenings with delicious wild foods and warm drinks.

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