Burdock, Seitan, Nettles, Oh My!

While traveling recently, we ended up sitting behind two women and a lovely little girl who were having lunch on the airplane.  They were eating McDonald's chicken McNuggets and french fries--the familiar, warm smell wafted throughout the entire plane. Even though we might not have wanted to admit it, the smell made us hungry. And so we pulled out our own lunch: a stir fry of burdock root, homemade seitan, hand-picked wild chanterelles, ramps, foraged wild nettles, chives, and ginger all over quinoa and seasonal asparagus.

(take a minute for a giggle)

The contrast could not have been more stark.

And so as we began to eat our stir fry, enjoying the unusual ingredients and bold flavors, we reflected on how much our diet has come to differ from the Standard American Diet, and how this makes us a little sheepish, even as it pleases us culinarily, environmentally, and ethically. Because we don't want to be the food snobs with the weird food, we don't want our diet to differ so radically from all the food around us. But that's because we want all the food around us to move in the direction of our eating, to embody thoughtful reflection, easy access, and high quality.  The goal is not to marginalize those who do enjoy their Chicken McNuggets, but to find space for habits that welcome nettles and burdock and seitan (when the geography and seasons are right, of course).  So, as we enjoy this recipe and think about the origins of its ingredients, may we also think about how to move towards a world in which the contrast between the lunches on these two rows of an airplane aren't quite so stark.

Burdock & Mixed Greens Stir-Fry
(recipe adapted from Harmony Valley Farm)

This dish can be made with any variety of greens, but if using nettles, please follow the handling directions below. Also, the particular ingredients we used were dictated by the contents of our farmshare, or CSA, box, so, if you have other root vegetables, aromatics, or greens on hand, please use those in place of the burdock, ramps/chives, or nettles, respectively.  (Of this recipe, the chives, ramps, burdock, nettles, and red chilies were all from our local farmshare).

½-1 Tbsp vegetable oil
3 seitan cutlets, ground (can substitute crumbled tofu or any ground meat)
3 Tbsp fresh ginger, minced
one handful of chives, sliced thin
3-4 ramp bulbs, sliced thin (can substitute onions)
1.5 cups mushrooms, sliced (I used rehydrated chanterelles)
1 cup burdock, sliced thin (wash and peel, if desired)
¼ cup white wine
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp soy sauce
3 dried red chiles (or 1 tsp red pepper flakes)
4-6 ounces (2-3 cups uncooked) nettles (or other greens: spinach, sauté mix, arugula, kale)
Salt, to taste

  • Prepare the seitan.  I used seitan cutlets I'd made long ago and frozen in their broth. I thawed them and then pulsed them a few times in the food processor to create a ground consistency (seen on right in the photo below, next to chives being chopped).

  • Prepare the nettles. Nettles, or "stinging nettles," are usually thought of as weeds and grow in rich soils along disturbed habitats. True to their name, before they are cooked, they are covered with tiny hairs that produce an intense, stinging pain, followed by redness and skin irritation. But when cooked, the leaves are delicious. So, it's important to use work gloves when handling nettles. You can collect wild nettles all over the place, but we got ours in our CSA box. Wearing gloves, strip the leaves and then rinse them in a colander.  Place the leaves in a steamer and steam at full boil for 10 minutes or until tender. (I ended up boiling mine for an extra 5 minutes, just to be safe).

    • Begin the sauteing. In a large saute pan, saute the ground seitan with a little bit of oil and some salt to brown it a little. After a few minutes, add ginger, chives, and ramps. Stir fry for 1-2 minutes until ingredients are starting to soften and are aromatic.
    • Add mushrooms and cook for another 2 minutes. If using dried chanterelles that your Papa picked for you out of the woods near his home in Georgia, boil the dried mushrooms separately for about 10 minutes to rehydrate them, before chopping them up and adding them to your stir fry.
    • Add burdock and continue to stir-fry for 1 minute. Burdock root is the main root of young burdock plants, which also grow wild all over. The roots have a crisp and mild flavor, and are eaten as a root vegetable in many parts of Asia. The root is high in fiber, calcium, and potassium. If you don't have it on hand, carrots, parsnips, sunchokes or other root vegetables can be substituted.
    •  To your main saute pan, add wine, vinegar, soy sauce, and chopped red chili. Stir to combine, then add cooked nettles (if using other greens, just add them raw and let them wilt for a few minutes). Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and allow vegetables to cook together for a few minutes.
    • Remove the cover and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper
    • Serve on its own or with a side of quinoa or rice. Serves 4