First, the vapors rise to your nose. Then your eyes water. Your sinuses clear. Steam curls in little cartoon wisps from your ears. You've taken a bite of pure horseradish.
The ugly root the ancient Greeks called "wild radish" packs a carefully camouflaged punch.
It's hard to believe today, but for centuries, the condiment generically known as horseradish was only considered medicine, used to cure everything from freckles to scurvy--it provides a good dose of vitamin C.
The Germans were the first Europeans brave enough to try it in the kitchen, but it took nearly 800 years before the rest of Europe caught on. Even then, it was considered too powerful for the refined palates and sensitive stomach of the aristocracy--it's traditionally been a condiment for the common man. Even its name indicates that: Armoracia rusticana.
The upper crust missed a sensory delight; horseradish grabs your senses with both hands and gives you a good shake before letting go. It's allylisothiocyanate--a tongue twister also known as mustard oil--that gives horseradish this punch. In fact, horseradish is a perennial herb from the Mustard family and like mustard seed, the horseradish tissue must be broken to release the oils, so the ungrated root looks and smells harmless.
The good news for gardeners is that horseradish is easy to grow. The young leaves can be eaten in salads, but it's fleshy taproot where the powerful oil resides, and what you'll dig up to use. You can segregate it or add it to your perennial beds; the large leaves make it a good-looking filler or background plant.
Like mint, it's aggressive and needs to be contained or it will take over your garden. It spreads by lateral roots that grow just under the surface of the soil. Plant it in a submerged container with the bottom cut out or surround it with edging that's at least eight inches deep to prevent it from taking over. Some will still escape but at least it's easier to control this way.
Horseradish likes soil similar to that enjoyed by other root crops--deeply cultivated, moist and loamy. Plant it in the cool weather of fall or spring. You can grow it from smaller roots purchased at the grocery store; scrub them first to remove any wax coating.
Take six-inch cuttings from roots that are about 1/2 inch in diameter and plant them vertically twelve inches apart, with the top around four inches under the surface of the soil. Keep weeds out until the plants are well established. You can begin harvesting as soon as you have roots six inches long, but the best time to dig them is in the fall, since they grow rapidly in the cooler weather. I would tell you to deliberately leave a few roots for next year's crop, but no matter how thoroughly you think you've pulled them up, there always seems to be enough left to keep on producing.
You can also buy prepared horseradish mixed with vinegar and assorted other ingredients in a jar, as a premixed and ready-to-use sauce, and dried. For convenience, buy the jar of grated horseradish in the refrigerated food section. It's cheaper to buy or grow the root and grate it yourself, though.
If you use the fresh root, you can grate as you go--the root will keep for two to three months in the crisper drawer of you refrigerator--or grate it all at once. Scour it first with a stiff brush then peel the rind with a paring knife.
A word of warning: the vapor can be pretty powerful. One woman, preparing her family's yearly supply, had to call first the fire department and then the hazardous material unit to clear the house of the fumes. I haven't had that problem, but if you are sensitive to such things, open a window and wear rubber gloves when handling horseradish.
The classic way to store the grated root is to combine it with vinegar (1/4 cup for every cup of horseradish) add a little salt and a big pinch of sugar and keep it in your refrigerator. It will last indefinitely this way.
If you have a dehydrator, you can dry it, but the fumes are strong during the drying. You may want to plug it in on the porch or in the garage. Once it's dry, grind it up into a powder and reconstitute with water or vinegar as needed.
My favorite way to eat horseradish is as part of a roast beef sandwich. I combine a tablespoon of grated horseradish with a couple of tablespoons of plain yogurt and spread this on the roast between two pieces of whole wheat bread. If you don't like yogurt, try mayonnaise or sour cream--they're all delicious.
Roast beef and horseradish are a traditional combination, but horseradish also goes well with fish (smoked, poached or broiled), poultry, sausages and pork. It's also perfect in pickles, marinades, soups and rice dishes. One of the hidden benefits is that it's low in calories--only 6 per tablespoon!
This relish as an unusual way to enjoy it:
3 cups chopped canned or boiled fresh beets
1/2 cup grated horseradish
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup vinegar
2 tablespoons of sugar
Combine all the ingredients to make a colorful, tasty relish that perks up any meal. You can store the leftovers in the refrigerator virtually forever.
Another delicious and this time conventional use for horseradish is in a seafood cocktail sauce:
1/2 cup tomato ketchup
2 teaspoons grated horseradish
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Mix all the ingredients for a sauce so quick and easy you'll never buy the expensive bottled stuff again.
For an eye-opening sandwich spread, cream 1/4 cup butter or cream cheese with 1/4 cup grated horseradish, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and a pinch each of salt and sugar. Try this on a bagel for a breakfast that will jump-start your day.
Horseradish arrived in America with the colonists. Besides it's medicinal qualities, they prized the strong flavor of horseradish for its ability to disguise the flavor of less-than-fresh meat. Fortunately today, we don't need it for that reason. We can enjoy it purely for the zing it brings to our food.
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About the Author Syndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.