Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Harvest Meal: Kinpira Gobo

This is the most macho harvest meal yet to grace our table. Sure, it looks like a wimpy vegetarian dish, but a lot of muscle went into the harvest and preparation.  It's kinpira gobo, which is Japanese for awesomely delicious burdock root.  I know, "kinpira gobo" sounds so much better.  Gobo is burdock in Japanese.  They've cultivated this root vegetable which is viewed only as a common weed where I live, refined it into a proper crop.  Though if you know your weed lore, you know that burdock burrs were the inspiration for velcro, so show it some respect.

I put a few Takinagawa burdock seeds into a patch of deeply amended ground early this year, watered them once or twice and then largely ignored them through our brutally hot summer.  Like the good descendants of common weeds that they are, nearly every last one of them germinated, and they thrived on neglect.  Really.  What they did can only be described as thriving.  They outgrew the elder seedling we planted nearby, almost to the point of shading it out. (I'm not worried.  The elder is a perennial, and those plants grow big in year two.)

When our first WWOOF volunteer was here, we dug up a few gobo, even though the specimens of this long season crop weren't all that big yet.  She was of partly Japanese descent, and damned if I was going to let someone who knew what to do with this plant get away without cooking it if I could help it.  She whipped up a dish of kinpira gobo with a few early dug gobo roots, plus a few carrots from the garden.  The dish was strikingly hearty and satisfying, and I resolved to master the dish myself when the roots were ready for harvest.

Gobo is reputed to be anticarcinogenic and an excellent tonic plant for the liver, and it's also supposed to make you strong.  The joke is that you don't get strong by eating gobo; you get strong from trying to prize the suckers out of the ground.  Gobo roots will grow up to a yard long if given the right soil conditions.  Euell Gibbons recommended against even attempting a frontal assault on the wild variety.  It's pointless to try to dig the root out directly.  Instead, dig as deep a hole as possible alongside the root, then pull the root into the hole and cut it as low as you can.  Like I said, our gobo was planted in extremely well worked earth, amended with a lot of compost.  And it still felt like earning my dinner to harvest these roots.  Every single time I dug for a gobo root, I left part of it in the ground.  This is fine by me as it only adds more organic matter to the soil.  Dinner and soil amendment in one go.  Yay!

Kinpira gobo ingredients: homegrown gobo in the foreground
Okay, to the recipe.  This is based on the way our volunteer prepared it, and not necessarily "authentic."  She was working within the limitations of the ingredients we had on hand, and substituting as necessary.  As usual, I don't have measurements.  The root needs some moisture to cook through, but not so much that it turns mushy.  It should retain a toothsome firmness.  Here's an ingredient list:

Gobo root - about 5"-8" of root per serving, depending on root diameter
carrots - optional
kombu (a dried seaweed) for dashi (you can substitute another seaweed or another kind of stock if you wish)
cooking oil - peanut, canola, or the like
sake (you can substitute a sweet mirin if that's what you have, but then omit the maple syrup)
soy sauce
maple syrup
bonito flakes (fine shavings from dried, fermented tuna)
sesame seeds for garnish, optional
rice to serve it over

Make a simple dashi (Japanese cooking stock) by gently simmering a 10" strip of kombu (dried seaweed) in a pan, uncovered, with about 1 cup of water for 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with water and place another empty bowl in the sink.  Hold the gobo root at one end, so that it points away from you. Using the back of a chef's knife, scrape all the skin and small feeder roots off of the root, allowing the scrapings to fall into the bowl.  Rinse the root as needed to remove all bits of the skin.  As each root is peeled, put it into the bowl of water.  This will prevent or at least slow discoloration on the root surface. Once the skin is removed, swap the bowls so that the bowl of water is in the sink.  Begin cutting off slim shards of the root with the knife, rotating the root as needed, as though you're sharpening a pencil with a penknife. Allow the shards to fall into the bowl of water.  The pieces should be less than 1/2" thick and no more than 3.5" long.  Continue cutting pieces off the root until only a small piece remains in your hand.  Cut the remaining part of the root on a cutting board, into similar sized pieces to those in the bowl.  Leave all the shards in the water until ready to cook to prevent excessive darkening.  If using carrots, cut them into pieces similar in size to the gobo.  You'll want the proportion of carrot no more than equal to the gobo. 

When the dashi has simmered for 15 minutes, heat your largest skillet over high heat for a few minutes.  Strain the dashi and drain the gobo root very well.  Add some light cooking oil to the skillet to coat it generously.  Then add the gobo to the pan.  Stir-fry the gobo for a few minutes, until the sizzling of the pan is reduced.  Add the dashi, some sake, and soy sauce to the pan.  Cover the pan loosely with a lid or a baking sheet if you don't have a matching lid.  Stir the gobo about once every minute or so, until the liquids are almost completely evaporated.  If using carrots, add them when most of the liquid has cooked off.  Taste a small piece of gobo for doneness and flavor.  Add a small amount of maple syrup with a little water or additional sake to the skillet, and a generous toss of bonito flakes.  If necessary, also add more soy sauce at this time.  Stir constantly until the liquid is again reduced almost entirely.  The gobo should have a nice golden brown color and a rich flavor.

It surprises me, but I find this dish of two vegetables plus rice to be substantial enough for a full meal.  My husband remarks on how "meaty" the gobo seems, every time I make this dish.  When I include carrots, I don't feel the need to pair it with anything but rice, though something green is also nice to have should the ambition strike me.  If you follow this sketch of a recipe, you'll probably end up with something pretty good, but you can refine it with a little practice and experience.  The dish should have plenty of flavor, with a lovely balance of earthy root, salty soy, rich ocean, and just a hint of sweetness. 

We're definitely planting this crop again next year.

Update: See my follow up post on the portion of the root that remains in the ground after harvest.


M L Jassy said...

I have seen gobo for sale in Asian groceries but wasn't quite sure what I was looking at. Now I have a recipe!

Anonymous said...

I may be wrong, but I think that the commercial growers in Japan plant it in a very sandy soil, much like parsnip growers do here. It's amended, don't get me wrong, but otherwise it's not easily removed from the ground for sale.

I love kinpira gobo, am lazy and so buy the precut bagged version at the asian market. What can I say, not enough room in the garden :( ;)

becky3086 said...

Interesting, afraid I haven't even heard of several things on the ingredient list though, lol. No asian markets here in GA but I will look around in the stores we do have.

Anonymous said...

Will the leftover root in the ground compost...or sprout?

Kate said...

Mitzi, try it! I think you'll like it.

Anon, yes, I believe you're right. Deep sandy soil would be ideal for growing gobo. I have to make do with our medium clay soil, amended as well as we can manage. I've never seen precut gobo, and wouldn't expect to in my area. You must shop in a more cosmopolitan area than I do.

Becky, even if some ingredients are unknown to you, I'm sure you could find them in an Asian grocery store. The kombu (seaweed) might not show up in an Asian store unless it stocked some Japanese items, but you might also be able to find it in a health food store. Everything else - other than the gobo itself, perhaps - should be pretty easy to find in most parts of the US.

Emily, I had considered the sprouting possibility. I think it's unlikely, but if it happens, it won't be a bad thing. The roots all broke off at least one foot below the surface, losing all of the plant's top growth. I'm guessing the exposed broken area leaves them at risk of simply rotting before spring rolls around. If they do grow through that much soil in spring, I really doubt they'll have enough oomph to set seed, as biennial gobo normally would. I would expect them to behave as though it were their first year out again. In which case I would simply get a second harvest off the same plant this time next year. If they do live up to their weedy heritage and try to set seed, well, I'd chop them down, probably. Dunno whether it'd be worth it to put up with burrs to save seed. If they do come up next year, I'll be sure to post about it.

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meemsnyc said...

Wow, what an interesting root!