Thursday, September 9, 2010

Digging Deep for Burdock

Since we're rather sparse in the greens category this fall, thanks to the extremely hot and dry August, we are bringing up more roots, including Japanese turnips, daikon, and burdock.

The long tap root of the burdock plant goes down about 3 feet. You cannot pull them as you would a beet or radish, but must dig down alongside them, loosen them, and gently lift them out. Although most burdock roots are straight, every now and then, you'll see an intertwined pair of roots like these that our intern Charlie just extricated here.

Burdock root definitely falls into the “can’t judge a book . . .” category of vegetables. At the market we sometimes wish that burdock were red or yellow and shiny like a colored pepper to attract the human eye. Alas, burdock is dull and brown and looks tough and unappetizing. But it is tender (you can scrape away the thin skin with a light fingernail) and earthy and delicious. It is also low in calories and high in fiber, iron, and inulin, a carbohydrate that is good for diabetics. The humble exterior of the large, dark, woody-looking root belies the sweet, nutty, delicate, crunchy flesh within.

Henry and I first encountered burdock as a food on our separate sojourns in Japan during the 1980s. Although the plant grows throughout Europe and North America, until very recently it had been cultivated only in Japan. Only now are we rediscovering what many Native Americans knew about the virtues of burdock. For the Illiniwek, burdock was an important winter food. They dug it in the fall, under the Harvest and Hunter’s Moons, and dried it. Then they ate it throughout the long, cold months of winter.

In addition to being used as a food item for millennia, many cultures have used burdock medicinally. Early Chinese physicians treated colds, flu, throat infections, and pneumonia with burdock preparations, and it is considered a powerful source of “yang” energy according to Chinese philosophy and macrobiotic practice—meaning it gives you the energy and strength to do what needs to be done.

As I mentioned, we're a bit low on fall salad greens this year, but look for some lovely mizuna bunches (the frilly, saw-toothed leaves above) and mesclun mix (using some of our buttery lettuces like the one below) coming to the Evanston Market this Saturday.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Saving (not Spitting) Watermelon Seeds

Given the 650+ varieties of vegetables Henry grows, seed-saving is not something we have time for. But when the seed companies stop carrying a variety that Henry loves, we have no choice.

So one of my happy tasks the past few days has been to make my way through a big, delicious, yellow-fleshed melon known as AU Golden Producer, set the seeds aside, rinse them, and put them on a napkin to dry.

Then I'll put them in an envelope, label it with the variety and date, and give it to Henry to plant next year.

And so the wonderful cycle of planting and reaping continues.

Last Chance for Outrageous Melons

This will be the last week for MELONS, so come and get 'em, because, as Mark Twain wrote:

It was not a watermelon that Eve took; we know it because she repented.”

I might add that it was not a last-of-season watermelon for sure, because hot days and cool nights are the absolute best for the melons, and so the most delicious ones tend to come at the end-of-season. In addition, our recent dry weather ensures an even stronger, sweeter taste, since there will be less water, and more flavor. So if you haven’t indulged in one of Henry’s melons, do so now, and if you have, indulge again! Here are a few of his varieties:

Mickie Lee – gray-green skin, with deep red flesh

Sorbet Swirl -- beautiful pastel swirls of pink and yellow flesh that has first-rate sweetness and texture

Osh Kirgizia -- light-green skin with jagged dark green stripes; sweet pink flesh inside.

Verona – A cross developed by Mississippi State in 1965 with thin, green-black rind, and deep red flesh. Best of the Black Diamond types. Very firm, sweet and tasty.

AU Golden Producer – large melon with bright yellow flesh, crisp and delicious!

Although Henry loves diversity, he tries not to plant watermelon varieties that look the same--just for ease and speed of harvest. It’s easy to tell a Mickylee, with its gray-green mottled rind, from a Verona with a dark green/black rind. But sometimes two varieties Henry cannot live without look exactly the same. That’s when the etching comes in.

If a red variety and a yellow variety look the same on the outside, then Henry will etch a Y on each yellow melon so the customers can tell them apart. The same goes for the S on the Sorbet Swirl, and the C on the Cream of Saskatchewan (which is actually an heirloom variety from Russia, by way of Saskatchewan).