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Hot, Hot, Hot
Horseradish, 2011 Herb of the Year, Has Roots in History, Gardens and Bold Kitchens

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Hot, Hot, Hot
Horseradish, 2011 Herb of the Year, Has Roots in History, Gardens and Bold Kitchens

Photos and story by Aenne Carver

Creamed, pickled, or freshly grated, horseradish explodes in your mouth. Eating horseradish opens your sinuses and roars up the back of your throat. Nicknamed sting nose, this herb packs a historical and culinary punch.

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana syn. Cochlearia armoracia) has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years. In fact, in medieval times, people regarded horseradish as an aphrodisiac and a cure-all herb. Infusions of horseradish were used to treat toothaches, coughs, gout, rheumatism and more. In the Bible, horseradish is one of the five bitter herbs and it continues to be served at Passover. Today, horseradish is used in massage therapy to alleviate muscle soreness and to clear up chest congestion.

In the garden, expect this pungent perennial to have fleshy roots, long-lobed leaves and clusters of white flowers. The roots are said to resemble a horse, but only if you have an excellent imagination. Though horseradish is publicized as a nondescript plant, the variegated variety (Armoracia rusticana ‘Variegata’) is surprisingly stunning.

To grow this herb, plant it in the early spring, in rich, loose soil and full sun. Unfortunately, horseradish is almost impossible to grow from seed. Root cuttings (sometimes called sets) are available in nurseries in fall and early spring. Small plants and root cuttings can be ordered on the Internet inexpensively. Several companies offer roots for $2.50 and plants for $4. However, there often is a minimum order of four to ten plants and a fee for shipping. So, if you opt for the Internet route, order a quantity and split them with gardening friends.

Like carrots, horseradish roots become twisted and malformed in rocky or shallow soil. To avoid this, double dig the planting area, or plant roots in a container where you can control the soil. After preparation of the soil, dig a hole deep enough to hold the length of the root cutting. Then, hold the root upright and back fill until all but the tip or crown is covered.

Horseradish spreads vigorously once established. To prevent an invasion, grow horseradish in a large container. Alternatively, plant horseradish in a bottomless, plastic pot placed into the garden soil. This keeps horseradish in check, yet allows for good drainage.

As soon as new growth begins the following spring, harvest the roots. In our mild climate, this works better than harvesting in the late fall as prescribed by most experts. Besides, harvesting in the spring avoids the hassle of overwintering root cuttings in moist sand somewhere out of the light.

To harvest, dig up the entire plant, focusing on the extensive roots. Save the longest roots for replanting and use the rest for homemade horseradish dishes. Store horseradish roots for future use in plastic or foil in the refrigerator. Protect the roots from light to prevent them from turning green which alters the flavor and intensity.

For culinary purposes, roots left in the ground beyond the first year become woody, and less pungent. As soon as you plant horseradish, enjoy the baby leaves as an unusual addition to salads. However, freshly plucked horseradish won’t have the heat you expect. The heat is released from the roots when the cell walls are crushed by grating or mashing.

Processing horseradish is as tear inducing as chopping onions. To sidestep crying, use a food processor or a strong blender to grind the roots, rather than grating them by hand. Vinegar stops the heat being released and stabilizes the flavor. The heat of your final horseradish dish is determined by when the vinegar is added. The recipe below suggests a time frame for adding vinegar, and you can experiment within that window.

Sometimes people confuse wasabi and horseradish because they generate similar heat and both come from roots. Wasabi comes from the rhizome of Wasabia japonica. However, both horseradish and wasabi are members of the large Cruciferae/Brassicaceae family, which also includes mustard, kale, broccoli, and cabbages.

Despite potential tears, horseradish is worth incorporating into your diet because it is richer in vitamin-C than oranges and stimulates the digestion of fatty foods. Here are a couple of basic recipes to get you started.

Homemade Horseradish
Makes about 1 ½ cups
1 cup peeled horseradish root, cut into ½ inch pieces
¼ cup of sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup vinegar

Combine all ingredients, except the vinegar, in a food processor and grind well. Timing is important when adding the vinegar because the longer you wait the hotter the horseradish. For less heat, add the vinegar one–two minutes after processing. For hot horseradish wait six–eight minutes. Add vinegar according to your preferred timing and puree. Cover and store the horseradish in the refrigerator.

Horseradish Mustard Mayonnaise
1/4 cup whole grain mustard
1/4 cup good quality mayonnaise
1/8 cup prepared or homemade horseradish
Salt and fresh ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients together and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper

Horseradish Massage oil
Mix 1 tablespoon of freshly grated horseradish roots with 1 cup of any cold-pressed oil, such as olive, wheat germ or sesame oil. Let mixture sit for a couple of hours, then strain out the roots. Use the oil on achy muscles or sore joints. 

Aenne Carver is a Master Gardener, writer and lecturer. She also is associate editor of California Garden magazine. Visit her web site, www.thethriftygardener.com, for a schedule of her talks and classes.