In the past (before grocery stores and global shipping) February was a hungry month. It was a time when the winter stores were thin and the fresh tender greens were only beginning to poke through the earth. Many cultures relied on their fermented stores to provide them with fresh crunchy tastes and vitamins.
Our winter eating challenge is a little different now. Our dilemma is knowing what to choose from the cornucopia we have available to us. (Fresh raspberries in winter—how far did they travel?) Seasonal eating in the temperate climate, at the latitude where you live, can leave you looking at a lot of root vegetables in February. One of these roots is the homely burdock, or gobo (its Japanese name), which looks like a dirty stick next to the bright carrots and crimson beets. Go ahead, look twice at this root. It is healthy and makes a delicious ferment. You’ll find it in the vegetable section of natural-foods stores. Look for roots that are still firm, not limp like an old carrot. Select those that are about the thickness of your thumb; any bigger than that and they tend to be woody.
The reputation of burdock, or, as it’s called by its botanical name, Arctium lappa, bounces between nuisance weed to flower gardeners and essential to herbalists and chefs.
Burdock has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties. It’s said to aid digestion and alleviate arthritis and some skin disorders. This list goes on, and the reason is that this “weed “belongs to the class of herbs known as adaptogens, which work to balance the system. This group of high nutritive and medicinal broad-spectrum plants includes perilla, spikenard, nettle, and ginseng.
As a biennial in its second year of growth, it can be seven feet tall, its many branches sporting mature seed heads that reach out and command attention by sticking to the passerby—hence the nuisance weed reputation. You can hardly read anything about burdock without the anecdotal tale of its role in the invention of Velcro.
1948. Switzerland. Walking dog. Burs stick to dog. Mind wonders. Microscope reveals hooks. Violà. George de Mestral invents Velcro. Not to be left out, it has been included here—along with a recipe for Burdock Carrot Kimchi:
Violà. Burdock-Carrot Kimchi
Burdock oxidizes to an unappetizing gray-brown when shredded and exposed to the air. Although in the beginning, the color makes you think the burdock must have been scraped off the forest floor, after some hours in the anaerobic, soon-to-be-acidic environment of the brine, the brighter color of the freshly shredded root returns.
We find this condiment to be a perfect and tasty way to incorporate burdock into our diet. It’s a satisfying snack in the middle of the afternoon — a dollop of Burdock-Carrot Kimchi and a few slices of raw cheese.
Makes about 2 quarts
We like our kimchi spicy, but we leave just how hot up to you.
2 pounds burdock root, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise
2 pounds carrots, thinly sliced crosswise
1 bunch scallions, greens included, cut into 1-inch slices
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Crushed red pepper flakes, or unsalted gochugaru , to taste (use a pinch for a mild flavor to 1 tablespoon for fiery-hot)
1– 1 1/2 tablespoons unrefined sea salt or 1/2 cup fish sauce
Combine carrots, scallions, garlic, and ginger in a large bowl. Mix well and set aside.
Peel the burdock root and thinly slice crosswise; then quickly squeeze on the juice of the lemon, to help the root retain its color. Add the burdock, lemon zest, and pepper to the bowl, mixing to combine.
Sprinkle in 1 tablespoon of the salt or fish sauce, working it in with your hands; if you are not getting much brine, let sit, covered, for 30 to 45 minutes. Taste for salt. It should have a slightly salty flavor but not an overwhelming saltiness. Add more salt if needed. Then toss and massage again for a few minutes to get everything mixed. At this point you should see brine at the bottom of the bowl. Transfer your vegetables into a jar or crock, a few handfuls at a time, pressing to remove air pockets. More brine will release, and you should see brine above the veggies.
Top the ferment with a 1-quart Ziplock bag. Press the bag down onto the top of the ferment, fill it with water, and seal. Set aside on a baking sheet to ferment, somewhere nearby and out of direct sunlight, in a cool spot for 7-14 days.
Check daily that the vegetables are submerged, (remember the veggies need to be anaerobic) and scoop out any scumthat develops. Using a utensil, you can start to test the ferment after one week. You’ll know it’s ready when it’s pleasingly sour, the flavors have mingled, and the pungency of the kimchi spices have developed. Tighten the lids and store in the fridge. This ferment will keep, refrigerated, for one year.