Arctium lapa. Burdock. Nuisance of gardeners and landscapers everywhere and giver of one of the most delicious feral vegetables I’ve tasted.
Spring 2016, I tried cutting a few of the central flower shoots. I knew some plants would make shoots and some wouldn’t, but I didn’t exactly comprehend the entire process. Here’s the skinny. Burdock is a biennial, meaning that it takes two years to complete it’s reproductive cycle and produce seeds so that it can annoy even more people with the sticky cock-a-burs (what my Dad called them) that end up all over your clothes after a day in the woods.
The seeds are produced from a central shoot only on plants in their second year of growth. The first year, plants focus their energy on developing a taproot, which you can also harvest, but it’s a serious undertaking. The shoots, on the other hand are a breeze to pick, and have a relatively high yield/low waste.
I cut a couple of the shoots, brought them to the restaurant and got to work. Raw they were grassy smelling, *really* grassy smelling. They weren’t bitter, they just had a strong aroma. luckily I’ve worked with a number of shoot-type vegetables that have similar properties and I know how to coax out their goodness, celtuce, burdock root, scorzanera and salsify are usually cooked in liquid to soften the roots before eating.
The flavor of the shoots was fantastic after cooking in a little vegetable stock and caramelizing in some browned butter, on par with the finest Belgian salsify that fancy restaurants pay an arm and a leg for, and reminiscent of celtuce shoots I can usually only get for a brief period through one or two farmers around here if I’m lucky, and even then I won’t get more than 10 lbs at a time. I was hooked, so I went back in two weeks.
“When the reproductive cycle starts, some of the edible parts of the plant become less edible, or in the case of burdock flower stalks, completely inedible”
When I got to the burdock patch, I noticed that the plants had started forming their seed heads (the cock-a-burs) and it was harder to cut through the base of the stalk. In hindsight, I should’ve known I’d missed the mark. Like so many other plants, when the reproductive cycle starts, some of the edible parts of the plant become less edible, or in the case of burdock flower shoots, completely inedible. The shoots cooked up stringy, fibrous, and horrible. Timing is everything.
Spring 2017. I was exploring an abandoned dairy farm in the Spring and hit the jack pot, a couple hours of cutting got me about 60 lbs of flower stalks, which, two month and a half months later are still good to use after being under refrigeration in the restaurant.
Now, how to convince people burdock is worth purchasing on a restaurant menu? Lets be honest, “burdock flower shoot” sounds like some dirty hippy shit, and depending on your restaurant concept you might get a few takers if you have a fancy pants tasting or small plate menu. I ended up just saving them for a few special dinners where I’ll be explaining the vegetable in detail personally to small groups of diners. The other option was hiding them in a mix of vegetables on the menu to use them up, which would amount to throwing them away if people wouldn’t be mindfully eating them. I didn’t want to throw them away.
Harvesting and preparing burdock flower stalks/shoots
I still don’t know what to call them on the restaurant menu, but I did learn how to cook them. First, you need to know how to process them. What I do is simple and separated into two parts: field and kitchen.
First, in the spring (May) I find a burdock flower stalk that’s a nice thickness and easily sliced with a knife to ensure it’s tender. Next I slice off all the leaves and discard them, then I cut the stalk, which can be a couple feet long, into 8 inch or so pieces so they fit in my foraging backpack, then I bring the shoots home within an hour or two and chill immediately in a fridge.
When it’s time to cook the shoots, the stalks get peeled twice. The first peeling is done with a paring knife. After the thick, leathery covering is removed, the inner fibers hugging the tender core need to be peeled, which you can easily take off using a vegetable peeler. After each section of stalk is peeled, they need to be placed in lemon/acidulated water to prevent it from turning brown and oxidizing, if that matters to you, which depending on what you want to do, it may not. Here’s a shabbily produced video outlining the process 🙂
Finally the exciting part. You have a couple options here, but I’m going to recommend cooking them beforehand just like celtuce, salsify and burdock root. They can be eaten raw, but to get the wow factor from these you’ll probably want to cook them first.
The easiest way I’ve found is just simmering the peeled stalks in flavorful liquid until they’re tender, then cutting them into pieces and frying them in butter.
You can introduce different flavors in the liquid the shoots get cooked in. My favorite so far is “a la barigoule” a classic way of preparing artichokes. Basically, you cook the shoots with aromatic vegetables, stock and wine. After the stalks are tender, you could serve them with some of their broth and the vegetables, but for refinement, I cook them again, serving them with other fresh vegetables that aren’t overcooked like the ones in the broth (refer to vegetable/mushroom medley in the beginning of the post).
Burdock flower stalks cooked in red wine
Similar to the barigoule is staining the stalks by cooking them in red wine (above) again flavored with herbs and vegetables. You could use the recipe below, and substitute red wine for half of the cooking liquid. They’re excellent as a side dish for roasted meat, especially with some other cooked rich flavors like baby onions and couple knobs of slab bacon, for example.
Burdock Flower Stalks a la Barigoule
Cook peeled burdock shoots in vegetable stock with additional aromatic vegetables and herbs until tender then remove, cut into smaller pieces and fry in butter, or serve with some of their seasoned liquid along with other vegetables. After they’re tender, fry in butter or serve with some of their seasoned liquid, along with some other seasonal vegetables.
Yield: enough cooked shoots to add to 4 entrees as a garnish
- 2 large burdock flower shoots, peeled and cut into 4 inch pieces
- 1/2 cup sliced carrot
- 1/2 of one large yellow onion, cut in half
- a couple sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 fresh or dried bay leaf
- 2 cloves garlic, whacked with the back of a knife
- 3 cups vegetable stock, chicken stock could also be used (use water in a pinch)
- 1 rib of celery, cut into 2 inch pieces
- 1 cup white wine
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Combine all the ingredients and bring to a simmer, season the liquid with salt to taste, it should be lightly seasoned with salt, then cook gently until the burdock is just tender, about 30 -45 minutes.
- Allow the burdock shoots to cool in the liquid, then strain out the aromatic vegetables and discard, reserving the burdock and the liquid. The flavorful liquid can be used to cook more shoots, or saved to be used as a broth for the base of another dish, like a stew of fresh vegetables.
- Store the cooked burdock shoots in a tightly sealed container, labeled and dated until ready to use.
- To serve the burdock shoots, you can slice them in to 1/2 inch pieces and re-heat them in their juice, or alternately take the pieces and brown them in butter as you would salsify or burdock root.