Did you know that horseradish is an herb and that more horseradish is grown in the United States then anywhere else in the world? Both are true!
Each year the International Herb Association (www.iherb.org) picks an herb to celebrate. This year the honor of Herb of the Year goes to the grated root you find packed in little bottles on a supermarket shelf somewhere near the hot dogs, horseradish.
Horseradish, Armoracia rusticana, is native to the Mediterranean. A member of the Brassica family, it’s a kissing cousin of table radishes, cauliflower, cabbages, broccoli, mustard and brussel sprouts. Horseradish has been considered an important medicinal herb for several thousand years. It was grown by the ancient Greeks, early Egyptians and most of the tribes that became the Europeans. Both the long, thick root and broad, weedy leaf were valuable medicines, their uses described in ancient herbals.
Freshly grated horseradish root found it’s way to the dining table about 600 years ago. It became the bitter herb at the Passover seder. Commonly served with meats and fish in Eastern European countries, sixteenth century Germans used horseradish so lavishly with sausages and seafood that the sauce was called “German mustard”. In Shakespearian England, roasted meats were eaten with Tewkesbury mustard, a tangy mix of mustard and horseradish. Brought to the American colonies sometime in the 1700’s, it was noted growing wild in New England by the end of the Revolution.
In the 1850’s, German immigrants in northern Illinois planted the first commercial horseradish field in America. That field was so successful that today 85% of all the horseradish in the world is grown in the United States. The center of production is the southern Illinois town of Collinsville, the Horseradish Capitol of the World.
Horseradish isn’t a commonly grown herb, but it’s certainly commonly used. Most of the horseradish grown in America is eaten in America. We consume about 6 million gallons of grated horseradish a year. That’s a lot of hot dogs and Bloody Marys!
Horseradish is an extremely hardy perennial. Plant it in early spring in full sun and rich, fairly moist soil. It’s broad leaves grow about three feet tall, the long roots reach deep into the earth. Once established, the plant flowers in the spring, sending up tall sturdy stems topped by loose clusters of small white flowers. The spicy horseradish-flavored flowers are delicious additions to spring salads or sprinkled on meat, fish and potato dishes.
Roots are harvested in the fall. The largest roots are kept for grating and the smaller ones replanted. After trimming and washing, the roots can be stored in a cool cellar or refrigerator vegetable drawer for several weeks.
Freshly dug horseradish roots can be found at farmer’s markets in September and October. Roots for planting can be purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com) in Winslow, Maine. (877-564-6697)
HOMEMADE HORSERADISH SAUCE
It’s not hard to make your own prepared horseradish sauce, but do be very careful to avert your face when you are grinding the root. Grating or grinding horseradish root releases mustard oil which can seriously sting eyes and skin. Be sure doors and windows are open when you make prepared horseradish.
* Peel an 8-10 root and chop it into small pieces.
* Put the chopped, peeled root into a blender or food processor.
* Add 2 tablespoons water, secure the lid and process.
* With face averted, carefully remove the lid. If the horseradish is to soupy, strain out the
* Add 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar and a pinch of salt to the
horseradish. Pulse to combine.
* Use a rubber spatula to pack the prepared horseradish into glass jars with
screw tops. Store in refrigerator or freezer until needed.
A SHORT HISTORY OF A HORSERADISH HOUSEHOLD
We are a horseradish household. Both Ned and I grew up eating it. A little dish of white horseradish was always served with the Sunday roast. Horseradish mixed with Cross and Blackwell’s sweet Chili Sauce or Heinz ketchup created the tangy red cocktail sauce we spooned onto raw quahogs and oysters. (Yes, we both loved raw shellfish as kids and still do. You tend to when you grow up on the ocean.) I also liked to crumble little oyster crackers into the cocktail sauce or smear the sauce on saltines. Yum. Horseradish was routinely stirred into our parent’s Bloody Marys and, when we were lucky, the kid’s Virgin Marys.
After we met and married, a jar of horseradish stood next to the mustard and ketchup in our refrigerator. We never grew horseradish. The only thing we knew about horseradish was it came in a little bottle from the grocery store and we liked it. That is, until we moved to Andover.
My father was a writer, historian, gardener and cook, in that order. He was overjoyed when Ned and I moved from a crowded apartment to an old farm house with an acre of land. Almost immediately boxes of books and magazines about gardening and cooking began to arrive. Favorite plants followed–astilbe, daylilies, oriental lilies and horseradish. Each package was accompanied by a letter explaining why he sent it and instructions on what to do with the contents.
He was especially excited about the horseradish. Horseradish, he wrote, was delicious as well as being very good for you and easy to grow. It should be in every garden. When he was a boy, living in New York’s Catskill mountains, digging the horseradish was one of his jobs. It was dug in the fall, scrubbed thoroughly and grated by hand. Grating was the tricky part he said, worse then chopping strong onions. You had to grate outdoors and avert your face so the fumes wouldn’t burn your skin. It wasn’t a job anyone liked, especially him, but it was worth it because the results were delicious.
We were to plant the horseradish in rich soil and let it grow. We did and promptly forgot about it for a couple of years. Then I read an article in Gourmet magazine about horseradish and how to prepare it. The author stressed that horseradish should be dug in the spring. So that April, I did. Ned cleaned the roots, then, keeping his face carefully averted, grated them in the blender. Following Gourmet’s directions, he heated the grated root. gently with a little vinegar and salt and bottled it. It was delicious. We were very proud!
That fall I hired Dot, my first employee, to help with my herb and dried flower business. We both loved food and quickly developed the routine of fixing ourselves great lunches. I belonged to a food co-op so always had delicious cheeses, especially aged chedders, on hand. I also had jars of fiery hot, homemade herb mustard, homemade sweet pickles and our horseradish, as well as a good crop of onions. Dot created a delicious sandwich that brought tears of pain and pleasure to our eyes. We ate it almost everyday. She swore it kept her healthy all winter!
DOT’S FAVORITE SANDWICH
Take two pieces of good sturdy bread, lightly toasted if you wish.
Spread both pieces with herb mustard.
Spread horseradish on top of the mustard.
Lay slices of 2 to 3 year old cheddar cheese on one piece of bread.
Put a few slices of raw onion on top of the cheddar.
Top the onion with sliced sweet pickles.
Place the other piece of bread, spread side down, over the pickles.
The horseradish still grows in the bottom of our garden. We haven’t dug it in years, but every spring I pick the flowers and use them in salads. They are delicious. Horseradish still has pride of place in our refrigerator. We slather it on our hot dogs, mix it with Mrs. Thrift’s herb mustard to spread on sandwiches, cutlets and fish, make seafood cocktail sauce and still serve it with the occasional roast and, much more frequently, fat juicy sausages.