You know those annoying cackle burr plants that reach out to grab you when you’re hiking or taking the dog for a stroll? Little balls of velcro grabbers perched high on their stalks snag you at the merest touch. Meet burdock, a bi-annual plant that doubles alternately as a versatile wild vegetable and annoying weed. They are great to forage for both roots and stalks. Harvest the roots in early spring the when the first rosette of leaves emerge. Or collect the new stalks that shoot up from the plant in their second year before they flower. The rangy, adaptable and pernicious plants spout from rock piles, cracked asphalt and in between demolished housing debris.
While I have foraged both roots and stalks (see my post foraging burdock roots here), I much prefer the stalks. The plants have large, oblong, soft furry leaves that send up a flower spike in their second year. I often find burdock along the roadside or, as I did this year, in my back yard. The flowers eventually become the cackle burr seeds. A relative of the artichoke, the stalks make a wonderful vegetable. The best size to forage are quarter-sized thick stalks. Cut them at the base near the leaf rosette.
To prepare burdock stalks, strip off the leaves from the burdock, then, starting at the large end, pull off the strings (similar to tough celery strings). Their fibrous skins are much like cardoons, another relative of the artichoke. The cut part quickly oxidizes, turning purplish brown, so each stalk should go into a bowl of water with lemon juice or vinegar to keep them from browning. The largest stalks are easy to strip, revealing a solid, non-fibrous core. Use diced stalks in vegetable dishes as you would diced carrots or celery. The burdock stalk add an artichoke character to the dish, with a texture much like peeled broccoli stem. Below is a spring couscous recipe with all the best seasonal vegetables, including burdock stem.
1 cup burdock stem, peeled & diced
1/2 cup baby turnips, chopped
1/2 cup fresh shelled peas or diced snap peas
1/2 cup green onions, chopped
1/2 cup baby fennel, chopped, or regular fennel, diced
1/2 garlic scapes or 1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 cup couscous
1 3/4 water
1/2 cup toasted almonds
1/2 lemon, juiced
tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Boil the water along with the juice from half a lemon, the juiced lemon rind and 1 teaspoon salt. When the water boils, remove lemon half and add the couscous. Turn off the heat and cover for 15 minutes. Sauté the burdock and turnip in olive oil until just crisp-tender. Add the peas, fennel, green onions, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and continue cooking until all else is just cooked, keeping things green and bright. To serve, turn the couscous into bowl and fluff with a fork. Add the vegetables and almonds and toss, adjusting the seasonings in the bowl. Serve with a wedge of lemon at the table.