Set the Table with Horseradish
Written onJune 28 , 2013
If, like many of us, you are struggling to pay for heat this winter and are keeping your thermostat down in the 50-degree range, you might like to know about a vegetable with an amazing capacity to warm you from the inside out. One taste—even one whiff—of the stuff and a jolt of heat travels from your nose to the top of your head and then permeates your entire body, guaranteed to banish any lingering chill. I’m talking about horseradish, that venerable old root that, in the Jewish tradition, is essential for a proper Passover Seder (the horseradish root, or moror, represents the bitterness of slavery). I remember it best as that red stuff we always put on gefilte fish when I was a kid, along with some gelatin and one circular slice of cooked carrot. I was surprised to learn at some later date that the real color of horseradish is white or beige; the red or pink of bottled horseradish usually comes from beet juice used as a coloring agent.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), a member of the mustard family, is said to be native to Europe and Asia, but it has been naturalized here and today is an exceptionally vigorous plant that grows well in Vermont, although I’ve never seen it at a local farmers’ market. The plant has an illustrious history of both culinary and medicinal uses due to its heat. The potent fumes released when the root is grated come from its chemical constituents, “isothiocyanates released from the gulcosinolates sinigrin and 2-phenylethylglucosinolate by the naturally occurring enzyme myrosinase,” according to one herbal reference text. What this translates to is that the root is not pungent until it is damaged when you cut or grate it. Once you do, watch out!
Horseradish root has been used as an antiseptic, an antibiotic, a diuretic, and as a remedy for asthma, coughs, toothache, and cancer. It is high in vitamin C and has been used to cure scurvy. Of course, too much of a good thing can also be very bad: horseradish can be irritating to the intestinal tract and too much can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Its roots and leaves may be poisonous to livestock.
Such a powerful plant has other valuable attributes in the culinary realm, such as its preservative qualities: adding a few slices to your pickles can help them stay crisp (and will make them hot!). Horseradish has long been used in European and Slavic cooking, often eaten with fish or cured meats. Austrian spice aficionado Gernot Katzer reports that Austrians frequently mix freshly grated horseradish with grated apples (sour varieties preferred) and lemon to create a mixture called Apfelkren, eaten as a spicy relish with fried or cooked meat. This reminds me of that other delicious Passover combination—moror and charoset (sweet apple chutney), eaten between two pieces of matzoh, the combination of bitterness and sweet reminding us in freedom to recall the bitterness of slavery, and in times of oppression to keep hope alive. But before I begin to wax philosophical, let me get to the pragmatic. How do you grow the stuff?
It’s easy—perhaps too easy. Both the Fedco and Territorial Seed Company catalogs, which offer horseradish roots for sale, warn that it should be isolated from the rest of one’s garden, as even tiny roots will re-grow. The plant has large dock-like leaves that grow as tall as three or four feet. It’s a perennial and can be grown in any soil rich in organic matter; it is said to like potash. Mine is happy in a sunny spot, but it may grow equally well in partial shade. The roots can be planted either in the early spring or in the fall. Harvest should only take place when the plant is not actively growing, again, in early spring or late fall. After harvest, you can use the main root for horseradish preparations, and replant the many smaller “runner roots” for your next crop.
While horseradish is best freshly grated, it is easy to preserve with vinegar. Grate horseradish by hand or in a food processor (taking care to turn your face away as you do it); add enough vinegar to cover the horseradish and store in the refrigerator. Since the addition of vinegar halts the enzymatic process that creates the heat, timing is important. Add the vinegar immediately for a milder preparation. Let it sit a bit if you want it hotter. You can also dilute the vinegar with water if you prefer a less vinegary mix. Adding some crushed ice as you process the root in a food processor seems to help grind up the woodier roots, and I’ve discovered that the more finely you grate the root, the more strongly flavored it will be.
Horseradish roots are available from Fedco Trees, which has an order deadline of March 13. Go to www.fedcoseeds.com and click on Fedco Trees.
Prepared horseradish is available at local co-ops. One supplier is Rabbi’s Roots in Shelburne: 802-744-2095. Uncle Dave’s Kitchen in Bondville sells horseradish
Illustration: General History of Plants by John Gerard originally
printed by Adam Islip Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers, London, 1633.
Reproduced with permission from Dover Publications, Inc.