Burdock Root

Burdock Root

That I was mesmerized by the variety of produce on my first visit to our neighborhood veggie market is an understatement. We moved to San Francisco in the mid-90s, well after the folks along the coasts had revived the local farmers’ market and a broader market for fresh seasonal produce had emerged. But the revolution hadn’t quite reached the Salt Lake City masses by the time we left Utah and I simply didn’t know that such a variety of fruits and vegetables was known to so many people and that city folk cook as many of them as they do. I was embarrassed.

My more experienced eyes have gotten better at scanning the bushy beds of red and green leaf lettuces, chicories and tender greens. I’ve grown increasingly enamored of the contrasts in texture and color I find throughout the market. I’m relieved to know the differences in tastes among the mustards, collards and cresses. In the midst of those radicchio heads, rainbow chard and kale lay dark, stick-like interlopers. Dirty, brittle burdock roots are inexplicably nestled among big, dramatic leaves. The shape of the tender root leaves a mean impression – slender, bark-y, impossibly straight and remarkably long – but these are not wooded sticks or twigs. A member of the daisy family and related to dandelion and chicory, the burdock in my market is essentially nothing more than the tap root of a biennial weed.

Northern Asians and Europeans have been eating it for ages and it seems, to my surprise, to be fairly ubiquitous. The Japanese, who call it gobo, seem to like it a lot – they stew it, stir fry it, make sushi and medicinal teas from it. It’s put to good use in stews in England and France, though less frequently these days. No doubt my pioneer ancestors ate it or made medicines from it wherever they found it along the trail westward. A quick search of the cookbooks on my kitchen shelf didn’t offer much on this pedestrian old-world vegetable, but a recent Google search for burdock recipes produced an astounding 53,900 hits. Where have I been?

That it is found in most places in the world confirms the genius of burdock’s design. The seed pods stick to everything, especially animal fur, and germinate easily. The name speaks to the seed pods, or burs, of the burdock plant that very likely inspired George de Mestral, the inventor of Velcro® who hatched his remarkable idea after a walk in the field and an evening spent picking burs off his clothes and out of his dog’s coat – a happy accident and a stroke of great luck.

The aisles of the produce market are narrow and on a Sunday afternoon, full of shoppers. Most of us carry plastic grocery store hand baskets. With plenty of bumping and nudging, you learn to say “sorry” and “excuse me” with a pained smile. When I got to the burdock I was reminded of its astonishing length. I knew movement through the aisles would be tricky with a long pointed stick resting on the rim of the basket and shooting outward a good two feet beyond the “bubble” around me and my stuff. That I didn’t think to wait to grab it until I was ready to check-out probably says more than I care to admit about my social skills.

I recommend cutting the roots to manageable lengths before scrubbing them. Having a three foot long spring-loaded pole in the hand makes for some tough cleaning over the sink (the experienced clerk at the market cut my specimen in half for me so I could manage it in on my walk home). I left the skin on half of the root and used my vegetable peeler on the other half. I chopped the unpeeled burdock into chunky rounds and shaved the peeled burdock into long ribbons. Exposed burdock oxidizes quickly. This is a vegetable for which the acidic water bath was created. Boiling seemed the most straight forward preparation and a pot of salted water makes for easy clean up.

Raw, it doesn’t taste like much. But the fragrance of the freshly cut and peeled tuber reminds me of other pungent roots like parsnips and rutabagas. I gave my sample a simple boil because I wanted to get to the foundational flavors of the food. The cooking liquid has traditionally been poured off and saved for use as a tonic. But I salted the water to season the burdock as it cooked and instead of saving it for soup, I foolishly tossed it. The taste of simply cooked burdock is mild and reminiscent of its artichoke cousin.

I like the name. And I prefer the sound of burdock to gobo, though the latter better places it in its context – a produce market in the middle of a mostly Asian commercial district in San Francisco. Burdock sounds funny and seems to beg for naughty wordplay. This is a plant known by many names – beggar’s buttons (inspired by the clinging pods?); love leaves (a reference to the heart-shaped leaves at the plant’s base); or, my favorite happy major! I mostly like what burdock has come to represent in my evolving appreciation of the bounty of fresh markets and my budding fascination with the simplest of time-tested foods. This is a food I’ll return to often.

Asian Burdock “Noodles”

1 Burdock root, cut into 10 – 12 inch lengths, peeled

6 cups water

1 tbsp sea salt

3 tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp rice vinegar

1 tsp toasted sesame oil

Cracked black pepper

Bring water to a boil and add salt. Once water comes to a boil, cut burdock into lengths, and peel with a vegetable peeler. Once clean, use the peeler to make long ribbons of burdock and add them to the boiling water quickly (burdock oxidizes like artichoke and must be cooked shortly after peeling or it will blacken). Boil burdock until tender, approximately 15 – 20 minutes. Remove from heat and drain.

In a bowl, mix the soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Add burdock noodles and toss. Plate and finish with fresh cracked black pepper.

An Elk Roast That Even Sarah Palin Would Be Proud Of

Elk, the other red meat.

There are very few things that Sarah Palin and I would ever agree upon, but venison being a superior meat to America’s slaughterhouse beef is one on which we definitely would see eye-to-eye. We would probably even swap a few recipes and the only debate we would have, about the meat that is, would be who makes the best chili. My chocolate cherry chili would win, hands down! But I’ll leave that blog for another day. This one is about our Elk roast dinner last night with our good friend Mary. The small party was supposed to include another friend, and artist, Zannah Noe, who’s work is displayed throughout our apartment. Unfortunately, we received a text from her at the last minute letting us know she was under the weather and wouldn’t be making it. Feel better Zannah!

We received the elk roast from Steve’s father, Karl, who lives to hunt and fish. Most people would be turned off by the smell and taste of wild meat, and I must admit that I was once that way. But over the years of substituting venison for beef, I can honestly say that I prefer the musky taste of it over the flavorless greasy beef that comes from the grocery store. It’s also nice to know exactly where the animal I’m consuming came from; what type of food it grazed on; and that it’s death was more humane than the conveyer belts of cows that line up to be slaughtered, day and night.

Is there anything more comforting than a big bowl of mashed potatoes?

The recipe for the roast came from Cook’s Illustrated, Simple Pot Roast, which you can only get online by being a member, but I’ll give you the run-down at the bottom of the post—just don’t tell Chris Kimball. The moment I unwrapped the elk roast I knew it was going to be a great meal. The meat was lean and firm, and there was no fat or sinew to cut away. The only prep work necessary was to tie the meat together and pat it dry with paper towels before placing it in a hot stock pot with vegetable oil.

As decadent as ice cream with a little less guilt.

With the pot roast we serve mashed potatoes and bleu cheese popovers, a variation of the popovers that Steve has become very fond of. Unfortunately they didn’t rise all that well, probably due to a reduction in the oven temperature, but were still quite tasty. For desert, we served a cardamom and cinnamon scented frozen yogurt, that was topped with orange segments and pistachios. It had a bit of middle eastern flare to it, but the oranges are so abundant right now and we have a lot of cardamom and cinnamon in our pantry, I thought it would be a great use for them. It was also a little lighter then say, an American cherry pie, or even traditional vanilla ice cream. The conversation was the best thing about the dinner. We really enjoyed getting to know Mary a little better and can’t wait to go over to her house and help her in her garden.

We’re hoping to have more dinner parties in the future; giving our friends the chance to try venison and some wonderful grass-fed beef.

Simple Elk Pot Roast

(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

1 boneless elk roast (3-4 pounds)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, finely diced

4 large carrots (1 finely diced, the other 3 cut into ½ inch slices)

1 celery rib, finely diced

1 pound button mushrooms, quartered

3 gloves garlic, minced

2 cups beef broth (homemade preferred)

3 sprig fresh thyme, tied together

1-2 cups water

2 large turnips, peeled and cut into wedges (6-8 wedges each turnip)

¼ cup red wine

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position. Tie the roast with cooking twine and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed stockpot until oil is shimmering. Place the roast in pot and sear until a nice dark brown develops on all four side, 8-10 minutes. Reduce the heat if there is too much smoke and add more oil if meat is very lean and the bottom of the pan dries out. Transfer the roast to a clean plate and add the onions, diced carrots, celery, and mushrooms. Sautee until the vegetables start to brown, stirring occasionally, 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic, cooking until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the broth and water, scraping up the bottom of the pan. Return the roast to the pan and any juices that have accumulated. Turn the temperature up and bring to a boil. Add the thyme, cover the top with foil and then place the lid on top. Place the pot in the oven and cook for 3 ½ – 4 hours. Every 30 minutes turn the roast over on each side.

After about 2 ½ hours add the sliced carrots and the turnips. Making sure that the vegetables are submerged in the cooking liquid.

When the roast is tender remove the pot from the oven and remove the roast from the pot. Tent the roast with foil and remove the carrot slices and turnips. If a lot of fat has accumulated, skim from the top. Then place the pot on the stove and reduce the cooking liquid to about 1 ½ cups. Add the red wine and reduce a few more minutes.

Cut the string from the roast and slice it into 1-inch pieces. Arrange the roast and the vegetables on a warmed serving platter. Serve with horseradish cream and sauce.

Horseradish Cream

¾ cup sour cream

2 finely chopped green onions

1-2 tablespoons (or more) prepared horseradish

Mix all together and serve with roast elk.

Cinnamon-Cardamom Frozen Yogurt

(adapted from Mark Bittman’s Basic Vanilla Frozen Yogurt)

1 ½ cups whole milk

3 cardamom pods

1 cinnamon stick

¾ cups sugar

4 egg yolks

2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt

Heat the milk in a pan with the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods, until just barely warm. Place a lid on the pan and let seep for 30 minutes. Discard cinnamon and cardamom pods. Add half the sugar, heat until steam barely rises, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Meanwhile beat the egg yolks and other half of sugar with a pinch of salt until light yellow and very thick. Slowly add a little of the warmed milk, whisking constantly so as not to cook the eggs. Adding more milk continue to whisk until all the milk has been add. Transfer the mixture back into the pan and place on the stove over low-medium heat, stir constantly until thickened. Remove from heat and stain through a mesh sieve to remove any cooked egg.

Place the bowl on an ice bath to cool, about 20-30 minutes. Once the custard is cool add the yogurt and whisk together. Place the yogurt mixture in an ice cream maker and allow to mix for about 25-30 minutes. Remove from the tub and store in a freezer safe container for at least 2 hours before serving. If the frozen yogurt becomes too hard to serve leave at room temperature for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Serve with orange slices, pistachios, honey, or any desired topping.