In Season: Burdock
by: COURTESY OF WINTER GREEN FARM, Wali Via, one of Winter Green Farm’s four owners, sprays a preparation made of powdered quartz on a crop to enhance quality. The farm was one of the first in the nation to grow burdock, a biennial thistle whose taproot is harvested for cooking and medicinal use.

Winter Green Farm in Noti, 20 miles west of Eugene, is a little sleepy at the moment.

It's still producing kale, leeks, turnips and greenhouse lettuces, but for the most part, winter is the season to hunker down with office work, crop analysis and machinery maintenance. In the winter, the 150-acre farm's summer staff of 40 slims down to a handful.

And there is burdock.

Actually there's a lot of it - six acres of Takinogawa long - a common burdock variety. Sown in May, the hardy biennial thistle, popular throughout Asia for its large edible taproot (similar in appearance to horseradish root), is harvested throughout the winter.

The root is sweet and subtly flavored. Some liken it to the earthy flavor of potato; others compare it to celery or Jerusalem artichoke. Sliced fresh, burdock does well in stir fries, soups and teas. It's also tasty and good for you juiced with beets or carrots.

For the next couple of months you can find fresh burdock root in the root vegetable section of local markets. Dehydrated burdock, on the other hand, is available chopped or ground (most often in bulk herb sections) year-round.

Vegetable's in 'yang' gang

Wali Via, one of the four owners of the biodynamic (a method of farming that seeks to improve the soil) and organic Winter Green Farm, didn't taste burdock until the farm began trials of it in 1986.

The same year, Winter Green Farm started growing herbs for the medicinal market, in addition to cultivating vegetables and berries and raising a small herd of grass-fed cattle.

Via explains: 'We grew burdock and had some success with it in the medicinal market as a dried herb. Through research, we found out that it was also used as a vegetable in Japan. So we sent in some sample roots to our marketing co-op at the time and said, 'See if you can sell this stuff.' '

Via says the growers didn't anticipate much of an American market. Yet 'they sold it all quickly and came back with the information that burdock was very popular in macrobiotic cooking - considered to be the most 'yang' of vegetables. And so a small fresh market started.'

Herbalists revere burdock for its detoxifying qualities. It's frequently prescribed as an herbal diuretic, a blood purifying agent and a skin toner.

Although Via can't prove it, he's fairly certain that Winter Green was the first American farm to cultivate burdock.

As their niche burdock market grew in the late 1980s, the farmers increased the acreage devoted to the plant. At the height of production, they had 38 acres planted with the crisp and mild root.

Sales minimize food miles

In the early 1990s, Winter Green Farm turned toward direct sales via farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture. Although the farm has continued to work with Organically Grown Co. and other distributors, more than 60 percent of its farm sales are direct.

Via says that although it hurt Winter Green Farm financially when other American burdock growers entered the market in the '90s, it embraced the change.

'We'd much rather people be eating local burdock than stuff shipped across the country,' he says. 'That was further impetus for us to move more toward local retail outlets.'

Winter Green Farm currently has several coolers full of the foot-plus long, slender burdock root, and plenty more still in the fields. The growers are waiting for a dry spell to hand-harvest the rest.

Some of it will be dried in large walk-in dehydrators, modeled after hops dryers, for the medicinal market. The rest will be sorted, cleaned and packed for the fresh culinary market.

Although Winter Green has finished up with Portland-area farmers markets until spring, you can purchase the farm's fresh burdock root at People's Food Co-op, Alberta Cooperative Grocery, Food Front Cooperative Grocery and New Seasons Market.

For a traditional Japanese dish, try Via's version of kimpira gobo - his favorite way to prepare burdock.

Kimpira gobo

(Courtesy of Wali Via)

Cut the burdock root using a julienne (or matchstick) cut. While some peel the root before cutting it, Wali Via believes you'll lose a lot of the nutrients that way and suggests just scrubbing the root first.

Soak the julienned burdock root in water for a couple of hours. Change the water and soak it again for an hour or so, then rinse it off.

Steam the burdock until it's somewhat tender but still has some bite - think al dente pasta.

Put a little oil in a frying pan and toss in the burdock. For color, add some matchstick-cut carrots (steamed burdock is sort of a dull tan color).

To the sauté, add soy sauce or tamari to taste. Then add a little bit of red pepper (crushed or ground) for heat.

Traditionally, you add sugar for sweetness; Via uses honey.

Vary the amounts of the three flavors according to the ratio that you like.

Sauté until it's completely cooked and serve either hot or cold.

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