Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter-Dug Burdock

We still have several gobo (domesticated burdock) roots in the ground.  I dug two of them up during a brief thaw about a week ago to see what roots left to overwinter in the ground would be like.  They were no more difficult to dig in cold earth than in warm earth, which is to say I still broke a sweat on a cold day.

Turns out I could have simply consulted the Johnny's Seed catalog to answer my questions about whether or not gobo holds in the earth through the winter.  Just last night, while surrounded by six open seed catalogs, I came across this: "...roots make a great season extension offering.  For fall, winter and spring harvest and storage.  Burdock can be overwintered in soil much the same as parsnips."  Still, it was an opportune moment to do the digging.  Temperatures are barely peaking above freezing once or twice a week.

In the course of answering my question by empirical means I found that the roots have developed a single growth ring, just as any tree does each year.  I've seen such rings before in carrots left too long in the ground.  I've heard that biennial parsnips do the same, and that the flesh of the parsnip outside the growth ring remains edible in the second year, even though the part within the ring becomes tough and unappetizing.  In gobo, the flesh is always somewhat tough, which lends it a meaty texture but also requires more cooking than for other types of root vegetable. 

The roots I dug this month were extremely large; more than two inches in diameter.  As ever, I was not able to dig deep enough to harvest the entire root.  So there's a root fragment of unknown length left in the ground for each plant that I harvested.  In wild burdock that I've dug up, the roots had hollowed out to form very large fibrous cavities.  I saw just the beginnings of this trait in the Takinagawa gobo I left for winter, though not in the least in those harvested earlier.  Where the cavity begins to form, the flesh discolors slightly and becomes sort of spongy.  I just trimmed around these sections and composted those parts.  I also found some traces of a pink coloration near the top of the root as I trimmed it.  I don't know what to make of this as I've never seen any such pigmentation in roots dug earlier in the year.  But we ate that root and are none the worse for wear, so it seems there's nothing to worry about.

I've read that burdock root stores only for one week in the refrigerator, but this has not been my experience.  I harvest the roots, leaving the very base layers of the leaf stalks intact, only very gently cleaning off the dirt that clings to them.  To do so I soak the roots in a big pot of water out on the porch to remove the soil clumps, and then shake off both water and dirt, leaving all the little feeder roots intact.  Rinsing the roots is said to hasten spoilage, but with this method all seems well. Then I wrap each individual root as tightly as can be managed in plastic wrap and store it in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.  So far I've kept them for two weeks in there and they seem fine. (My next experiment will be to store one in the root cellar and see how that does.)  I can't say this with absolute certainty, but it seems to me that winter-dug gobo roots are slower to discolor when the flesh is exposed to air than are summer- or fall-dug roots.  The discoloration occurs quickly when preparing the roots by scraping them with the back of the knife.  (There are more details about preparing gobo on my kinpira gobo recipe page.)  Whereas the parts of the root exposed by breaking them off during winter harvest seem very slow to discolor.  In any case, the discoloration is purely aesthetic and not in any way dangerous.  I now put a generous splash of vinegar in the soaking water during preparation and this prevents most discoloration.

So there's my empirically derived answer as to whether or not gobo will hold in the ground over the winter.  They will, though the tendency of the plant to form root cavities may become more and more evident the later the root is harvested.  Now the question remains as to whether or not the root fragments left in the ground will rot in place, or manage to grow enough to produce top growth in a second year.  The fragments are all at least 10 inches below the surface and usually more than that.  If they rot in place, that's fantastic treatment for our clay soil.  If they regrow next year, there's a good chance I'll get another harvest from a single planting.  In the latter case it would be interesting to see how many years of harvest could derive from the initial planting.  It's also possible though that the second year's root growth might be less edible in some way.  We shall see...


Hazel said...

Judging by the first paragraph on this page
I reckon it will regrow! I think you could have burdock for life :0)

I don't know if you're familiar with horseradish
(I must learn how to do links properly.) I've never seen horseradish mentioned on US sites, but it's traditionally made into a sauce with cream to eat with roast beef. Think of it as a slightly milder version of Wasabi, but with the same pungency.
Anyway, it's growth pattern seems similar to burdock, and once you have horseradish its hard to eradicate. Which is fine by me, because I love it and eat it with all sorts of things.

Thanks for all the info- I'd never considered growing burdock before, but now I'm intrigued, especially if it does turn out to be perennial. Incidentally, with horseradish, if you dig it up and some roots are too small, you can replant them. It would be interesting to see if that works with burdock.

Kate said...

Hazel, horseradish is definitely known in the States, though, as you surmise, much less popular than in England. I have some roots on my order for this coming spring. Hard to eradicate is fine by me. I like plants with a stubborn disposition. I consider horseradish essential with my roast beef for Christmas dinner. I look forward to being able to source my own next year. But haven't tended to use it too much with things other than beef or occasionally other meats. What do you eat it with? If you do decide to grow burdock, I definitely recommend getting some domesticated seeds; the wild variety isn't too great. Also, if you plant them, tightly spaced, in a semi-circle, you'll be setting yourself up for digging just one hole to harvest several different roots. That's my plan for next year!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

You are SUCH a root geek! Growing your own food makes you pay attention to things that you'd never know if you let someone else do all the work. It's actually pretty astonishing how interesting a humble root can be. Thanks for the roadmap -- I'm thinking of parsnips for next year.

Hazel said...

Tamar, certainly grow parsnips. They are dead easy and definitely my favourite root vegetable! Roasted, with a drizzle of honey or maple syrup, or in a spiced soup- delicious! I told my children that the French only consider them fit for animal feed as they were on their thirds of parsnip and apple soup...
I've been given a parsnip risotto recipe I want to try next.

Kate, horseradish goes well in tomato sauces surprisingly. A pizza chain here used to serve onion rings with a tomatoey dip as a starter and it took me a while to work out the background flavour- horseradish! Stir it in just before serving. Either creamed or 'straight' preserved horseradish works.

My other favourite use is an idea by a food author/TV cook called Sophie Grigson. It's one for when you've had a week or so of steamed and grilled asparagus.
Simmer chopped stems of asparagus for 5 minutes. Add tips and simmer another 3-4 minutes. Drain. Boil pasta (I use the same water for extra asparagus-ness). Just before pasta is done reheat asparagus gently in butter. Remove from heat and add horseradish (about 1 tbsp creamed horseradish to 1lb asparagus/1lb pasta) and good squeeze lemon juice. Toss with drained pasta, sprinkle with chopped chives and serve!

I also make this later in the year with peas instead of asparagus. The horseradish isn't overpowering, it just livens it up.

Kate said...

Tamar - root geek; I like it. Parsnips are a favorite of mine. Sadly, we had none this year due to factors I outlined recently. Once established, they're very easy. Hazel might experience ideal springtime germination conditions for them fairly reliably, living as she does in rainy, cool England. Here our spring temps can warm up beyond what parsnips like. That said, they are winter time treasures and we're definitely missing them this year. Try them, certainly!

Hazel, thanks for all the suggestions on how to use horseradish. I love the risotto ideas. Don't know why I didn't think of the tomato sauce idea; it's a staple of shrimp cocktail over here.

Hazel said...

Ah, so the British weather is finally useful for something!

Parsnips are also good with mushrooms. Sorry for yet more unsolicited recipe ideas, but try either mushroom and parsnip lasagne (saute mushrooms with onion and garlic, layer with pasta, top with par-boiled parsnip slices then bechamel or cream sauce) or top large field mushrooms with parsnip puree and grated cheese and then bake.

Chris said...

Hi, check out the blog "Throwback at Trapper Creek" if you haven't already. Although they are located in the Pacific Northwest, you may enjoy it very much. A self sustaining and that redundant?, ranch, homestead! And very informative...alot like yours! :)

Bonnie Story said...

Wonderful! My gardening pal and I just had our first season of Salsify and it was wonderful! Plan to grow more next year, two varieties. Burdock sounds great too. So many great plants out there. I like near Seattle and our growing season comes to a slamming halt up here in late fall - having crops that can take some frost is a key. Happy holidays! Bonnie

Kate said...

Hazel, recipes, or sketches of them, are always welcome here. I never would have thought of pairing parsnips and cheese. It makes good sense though, from a seasonal food perspective.

Chris, yes, thanks. I am familiar with Matron's blog. It's flattering to have my blog compared with hers.

Bonnie, I imagine that burdock would keep going strong right through a Seattle winter. Not sure exactly how that would play out, but I will say that while burdock holds in the ground through the winter, I do think there is some loss of quality. The early frosts around here did not seem to faze it much. In our area parsnips hold in the ground through the winter in ideal condition.