By Vicky Babcock
Welcome to the American Bottoms, a Mississippi River basin carved out by glaciers during the ice age. The soil here is rich in potash, a nutrient on which horseradish thrives. According to promoters, it is here where 60 percent of the world’s supply of horseradish is grown. It is home to the International Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, Illinois. Celebrated the first weekend in June each year, events include root tossing, recipe contests and horseradish eating contests. Please see more information at www.horseradishfestival.com. Yet horseradish is not native to the U.S. and was probably introduced to the Americas during European colonization. Horseradish is happy where winters are cold and has a wide range from zones 2 to 9.
Horseradish is not for horses. In fact, both the leaves and roots are toxic to livestock, including horses. It does, however belong to the Brassicaceae family, which includes mustard, broccoli, cabbage and yes, radish. The name, “horse” likely stems from its archaic form, meaning strong, coarse or large.
Horseradish is not for everyone. It is most often used as a condiment with beef and is closely related to wasabi. However, it gives a lovely bite to a jar of pickles and Blue Diamond™ makes a wonderful Wasabi Almond, one of my favorites. The leaves can be used in salads and have the same—though much less—bite as the root. It is often used as one of the bitter herbs eaten in observance of Passover.
The bite associated with horseradish occurs when the plant is oxidized by chopping the root. Chopping or grating the plant releases isothiocyanate, a volatile compound that when combined with oxygen, provides the heat. The plant itself uses this as protection from insects and animals and few critters are likely to taste it twice. It is nature’s own chemical warfare, but used for protection only. It is interesting to note that at least one U.S. facility uses gas masks in processing this bitter herb.
Once the root is chopped, it must be stabilized in vinegar to preserve the heat. Horseradish does not have a long shelf life, as it loses its heat rather quickly and can become bitter. Store bought sauces are likely to be more mild than you will get if you make your own.
Fresh horseradish has antibacterial properties and it is high in vitamin C. Both its leaves and root were used medicinally in ancient times and were considered useful for urinary tract infections, kidney stones, fluid retention, cough, bronchitis, achy joints, gallbladder disorders, gout and colic. I do not advise self-medicating, however. As always, check with your doctor before using in any sense other than culinary.
According to Greek mythology, the Delphi Oracle informed Apollo that horseradish was worth its weight in gold. It was prized in Egypt as early as 1500 BCE.
Horseradish is harvested in the spring and fall and will last for up to six weeks if properly processed, although some sources claim success up to one year. You might want to try freezing small quantities for later use. Enjoy!
To process your own horseradish, wash and peel an eight to ten inch root. Chop into pieces and place in the bowl of a food processor.* Add one to two tablespoons water and pulse until desired consistency. Add a pinch of salt and one tablespoon white vinegar. Or try our cream sauce. Recipe follows:
1 cup sour cream
¼ cup grated or finely chopped fresh horseradish
1 T. Dijon style mustard
1 tsp. white vinegar
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
Whisk ingredients in medium bowl until smooth. Refrigerate for at least four hours to allow flavors to blend. Store in an air-tight container for up to three weeks. Use as a condiment with roast beef. Try with a red wine to balance the flavor.
*Always use care when cutting or handling fresh horseradish. While the intact root has little odor, cutting the root releases a potent compound that can irritate the eyes and nose. Use in a well ventilated area and avoid touching your eyes.
Fresh Market is brought to you by Solon Market located at 15185 Algoma Avenue. For more information call 616-696-1718. Like us on facebook for updates.