Japanese style pickled burdock
by Danielle Charles
In the past several years, I have become addicted to preserving things. I can’t seem to help myself. The thought of all those little jars full of goodness accumulating in my pantry fills me with the warmest feelings of happiness and contentment. It’s like having money in the bank, those jars. Things to look forward too. I find myself mapping out the year in what preserves I will make – rhubarb jam in May, Strawberry in June, bread and butter pickles in July. I have an endless list.
And I’ll tell you, that deep down, what I’m really drawn to about the whole thing is the idea that somehow, I can capture time in a jar. Does that sound mad? I believe it though. There is more than just strawberries in my jam. There is June sunshine, long lazy days of blue skies, lightning bugs and warm muggy afternoons when the thunderheads roll through. All of that is in there too. When you preserve something, you also preserve a little bit of time, a memory, a thousand sensations. And then you open it up months later and all that is there to taste. June sunshine on a dull February afternoon. It’s a thought that makes me happy.
I was making my spring list of things to pickle, jam and capture in jars, when my good friend Iris called. Iris is one of those truly remarkable people that seem never to be phased by anything. While I am panicking and worrying and over-reacting to just about everything that is ridiculous and unimportant , she goes about in her gentle and easy way, handling the most horrendous of happenings as though they were nothing at all. This is saying something too, as she is a single mother and the owner of her own herbal products company, which she runs single-handedly. A remarkable person, as I said. Just being in her presence makes one calm, as though the world has just slowed down a few paces and grown far less complicated than it was before.
Anyhow, Iris called me up to ask me if I might like to collaborate with her again on her seasonal herb share program. We did one back in the winter – packed with elderberry syrup, echinacea, immune soups and the like – which turned out quite a success. So she wanted to keep going with a spring theme this time. I want you to make something that falls more into the food category she said (doesn’t she know me well?). Maybe something with spring greens, or something rooty. It just has to be shelf-stable.
Well, it didn’t take long for me to pick. Burdock pickles. I make them every year in early spring, and they, along with all my other favorite must have jams and pickles, are an important marker in the succession of the year. There is burdock pickle time just as there is tomato sauce time and canned peaches time. It’s a time of shoots rising, leaves unfurling, damp earthy soil and roots to be dug.
Burdock, to give you a little background, is a common garden and wayside weed with remarkable medicinal qualities. Herbalists like to call it a “tonic” because it does just that – gently tonifies and strengthens the body, from the digestive tract and liver to the immune system and lymphatics, when used over a period of time. For this reason, I love to consume a little burdock each day at the change of the seasons (spring and fall) to support my body as it adapts to the seasonal transition. In Japan it is touted not just for its medicinal benefit, but as a delicious food as well – a crisp, nutty root with a distinctive sweet flavor that can only be described as burdock. These pickles are my favorite way to get my daily burdock dosage and savor its delicious and unique flavor.
So burdock pickles it was. I headed out with my shovel for an afternoon of root digging, root scrubbing, root chopping and root pickling that ended in a half a dozen glittering glass jars packed with burdock roots, ginger, chile and garlic. Four of them went off with Iris for the spring herb shares (and to be sold at the Montpelier farmer’s market this Saturday – look for the Grian Herbs booth) and two of them have joined the many other jars of deliciousness in my pantry. And of course, burdock isn’t all you’ll find in those jars. The damp earthiness in the air, the feelings of mud between your fingers, the unfolding of leaves, the rising up of shoots. It’s all there too. You just have to open it up and taste it.
Pickled Burdock Root
You can also find burdock (or Gobo) in Asian markets or well stocked grocery stores, if you haven’t the chance to go dig some up yourself.
- 4-5 medium-sized burdock roots
- 3 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
- a two-inch piece of ginger, sliced into thin strips
- 1 red chili sliced thinly (or 1 – 2 tsp red chili flakes)
- apple cider vinegar
Scrub the roots well to remove any dirt and then peel away the rough outer skin. On larger roots, the outer layer can simply be peeled away by hand though on smaller roots you will need to use a vegetable peeler.
Cut the roots into 1 inch long segments, and then julienne them into matchstick size strips. Alternately, you can slice the roots into thin rounds, about 1/8 inch thick if you prefer a larger sized pickle.
Place your prepared burdock into a pan and just cover with water. Bring the water to a boil for 2-3 minutes (just enough to soften the roots slightly) and then remove from heat. Remove the roots using a slotted spoon and place them in a clean bowl, reserving your cooking liquid.
Add the ginger, garlic and chili to the burdock and mix well. Then divide this mixture into 2 or 3 sterilized pint size mason jars, filling them to about an inch from the top. In each jar, you will fill 1/4 of the volume with apple cider vinegar, 1/4 with tamari, 1/4 with the burdock cooking liquid and 1/4 with sake. Cap tightly. At this point you can refrigerate until ready to use, or place them in a pressure cooker or water bath to seal and make them shelf-stable.