Thursday, September 5, 2013

Growing Requires Goggles

Horseradish in my garden
 is the big leaves
in the left middle of this photo.
If you talk about a locally grown hot spicy vegetable, peppers come to mind.  Today I’m going to talk about another great spicy plant:  horseradish.

Every garden used to have a horseradish plant.   It was a way to add flavor to meats that may have been processed or cooked to the bland stage.  Today, few homeowners would know the horseradish plant, let alone know how to make it into the rich wonderful condiment they find in the refrigerator section at the grocery.

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana – Cochlearia) is a perennial plant belonging to the Brassicaceae family (that includes mustard and cabbages.)   It’s cold tolerant to Zone 4. 

We assume it arrived in the US with immigrating Europeans.  It’s a staple of German cooking and a root would transport easily by sea tucked into a steamer trunk.  Today it’s popular around the world. 

The plant grows with large palm shaped leaves reaching up to five foot.  It’s not invasive although it slowly expands its footprint.  Digging some of the roots annually will keep it healthy and in check. 

The horseradish root itself has hardly any aroma.  When cut or grated the enzymes from the damaged plant cells breakdown sinigrin (a glueosinolate) to produce allyl isothiocyanate (mustard oil.)

Horseradish may be harvested in the spring or fall although cooks definitely have a preference because the flavor is more pungent in the fall.

Horseradish roots
Anyone who’s taken that white root, peeled the outside with a carrot peeler and tried to grate Horseradish will have stories to tell that rival any cooking experience.  As the mustard oil is released, anyone within a few feet will have their sinuses and eyes irritated unless extraordinary precautions are taken.

Most people process Horseradish outside.  I have friends who have “horseradish processing apparel”.  It consists of goggles and some even so far as a sealed headgear.  Others swear by using a food processor or blender.   All use rubber gloves when handling the raw root because it can blister the skin.

If it has all these scary attributes, why do we even bother?  Because it adds such wonderful spice to our meals.  It’s especially valued with beef and always an ingredient in cold seafood sauce.  Some old recipes call for using the leaves in salads but I’m thinking it would be a little like eating hay. 

Whatever your method, the grated Horseradish must be immediately mixed with vinegar or it looses its pungency and becomes unpleasantly bitter when exposed to air and heat.  It’s best to put in sterilized jars and kept in the refrigerator.   It can then be used mixed with other ingredients or simply as is. 

Horseradish is grown commercially and as such is treated as an annual.  Annually grown plants tend to have more tender creamy white roots.  It should be planted in early spring and can be grown in almost any soil except sand and heavy clay.  If your local nursery doesn’t carry the plant, look on-line or in catalogs or dig a root from a friend.

Horseradish in bloom
Use only the tender white roots, as the old ones are tough like wood pith.  Recipes are usually found in very old cookbooks.  Some recipes add so many additional ingredients; it masks the zing and essence we so love.

It was used (back in the day) as a means of clearing the sinuses.  And whoa baby, eating a half-teaspoon can power its way through your sinus cavities like a blowtorch.  My advice, if you’ve never eaten fresh Horseradish, takes it a little slow and in small portions.  You’ve been warned!

If you’ve never eaten fresh ground Horseradish, it’s like so many things – it’s another taste altogether.   Examples:  Fresh tomatoes from the garden vs. hothouse.  Peaches fresh from the tree vs. commercially canned.   Sweet corn from a farmer’s field vs. frozen in a bag.   

 It’s a wonderful garden plant; needs little care or extra effort.  The leaves have a beautiful tropical look without the fragility.  Best of all, it is a wonderful food.  Now gather your goggles and get grating!


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