Until horseradish was named the 2011 Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association, I'd paid it little attention unless I was sipping a Bloody Mary or slathering a beef sandwich with a zesty sour cream mixture. And, oh, yes, dipping a big, juicy shrimp in cocktail sauce. I'm not sure I ever knew it was an herb.
That homely, horsey root? Really? Doesn't look anything like tarragon.
But it's classified Armoracia rusticana and by most accounts has been used for centuries, first medicinally, then as seasoning for food. Ancient Greeks and Romans knew horseradish by a variety of names and used it as a condiment. It has grown in eastern and central Europe since at least 1,000 B.C. From Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe, it took root in England, where it met success, perhaps even before the Brits were famous for standing ribs of beef roasts. In 1551 it was known by its medieval English name, red cole -- a clue to its relationship with cabbages as well as radishes in the mustard (Brassicaceae) family. By 1597, in John Gerarde's "Herball," the plant was called horseradish.
Early colonists likely brought cuttings of horseradish to America. But its first printed reference is in Bernard M'Mahon's catalog, "The American Gardener's Calendar, Adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States," printed in 1806 in Philadelphia. It is listed under the chapter "Kitchen-Garden, A Complete Account of All the Work Necessary to be Done, for Every Month in the Year; with Ample Practical Directions for Performing the Same."
Horseradish planted in the vegetable garden at Monticello is apt to have been ordered from Mr. M'Mahon, for Thomas Jefferson was a regular correspondent and customer.
Mr. M'Mahon's directions read a lot like those in a contemporary Burpee or Park brochure:
"This plant is cultivated by cuttings of the root, either cut from the top an inch or two long, or some old roots cut into pieces of that length, or by small offsets that arise from the sides of the main root, retaining the crowns or top shoots on as many as possible.
"Being furnished with these sets, choose in an open situation, a light and rich soil, which, trench regularly two spades deep, at the same time giving it a good dressing of manure; then beginning at one end of the ground, range a line and with a large dibble, make holes about ten inches deep, all of an equal depth and about six inches asunder, dropping as you go on, one set or cutting into each hole, with the crown upright, taking care to fill or close the holes up properly with the earth, and let the rows be two feet asunder."
He goes on to advise allowing these plants to stay put for two years, if you want roots "in fine condition," not as puny as they'd be after one year. April is the best month for planting. October is the time to harvest.
What he doesn't mention is the precaution in all modern garden guides: When harvesting horseradish, remove roots and rootlets, even threads straying off rootlets, or horseradish will choke out everything in the garden the following year. If this proves impractical, soil in the horseradish bed could be replaced, as commercial growers do. Or, in a pinch, use a trash can as a planter, says herb expert Jekka McVicar, who's coming to Pittsburgh this summer for the Herb Society of America's Educational Conference.
In the mid-19th century, as Scandinavians and eastern Europeans immigrated to America, horseradish began to be widely cultivated in Midwestern states. Henry John Heinz was growing horseradish in the family garden in Sharpsburg and peddling the product to homes, grocers and hotel kitchens in Pittsburgh. He had learned that housewives would pay for someone else to do the job of grating the intractable roots that brought on uncontrollable coughing and crying. To further enhance his product, young Mr. Heinz used clear glass bottles, not the camouflaging green or brown ones used by less fastidious vendors.
In "The Good Provider," Robert C. Alberts writes: "Probably he would hold it up to the light; perhaps he would produce a spoon, open up a bottle, and suggest a sampling -- see, no lumps, no leaves, no wood fiber, no turnip filler!" Sales took off.
Horseradish is a very hardy herbaceous perennial that dies back in winter and reappears in spring. In a back row of the garden, it can stand tall, with a crown of large, coarse, lanceolate leaves that may reach 30 inches in length and thick, white, fleshy roots. It prefers sun but can put up with some dappled shade. It grows well in all soils except the very driest ones.
Horseradish roots, usually dug up in the fall, need to be thoroughly scrubbed and trimmed before tackling the choking, tearful job of preserving them. To minimize the pain, peeled roots can be stored in a plastic bag in the freezer for an hour. They are rock-hard, so must be scraped by hand or grated in a food processor. The volatile oils produced by these procedures hang in the air; I know of one couple that had to vacate the house for a few days after putting up horseradish.
Grated root has the bite of a very strong radish. It goes well with coleslaw or dips, with pickled beets, cream cheese, mayonnaise and avocado fillings. Horseradish sauce is just what's needed by roast beef or smoked oily fish. Because its pungency vanishes quickly and disappears when heated, it should be added to hot dishes like soups and mashed potatoes at the last minute. Wasabi, the potent Japanese horseradish, is its own variety.
This herb is said to have been one of five bitter herbs (along with coriander, horehound, lettuce and nettle) that Jews ate during the feast of Passover. Among the attached recipes are innovative horseradish-flavored white fish cakes that would be a good addition to the Seder table. The author is Eileen Goltz, who wrote the cookbook "Perfectly Pareve." If the menu includes gefilte fish or brisket, you need a dab of horseradish relish as well. This is simply grated root livened by a splash of vinegar, subdued by a bit of sugar and, if you like, dyed with some chopped beets. A salad of mixed lettuces including the dry, mustard-y tang of the first tender leaves of horseradish might represent more of the traditional Hebrew herbs.
Although nothing beats freshly grated root, grocery stores provide horseradish preserved in vinegar, plain or mixed with beets. There's also prepared, creamy horseradish sauce, regular or smoky. Penzeys' horseradish powder mixed with water or yogurt makes a fiery dip or rub.
And the horseradish that H.J. Heinz was delivering? Some 150 years later, Giant Eagle stores still carry the sauce, as well as fresh horseradish root.
MUFFIN TIN WHITE FISH CAKES (FISH/PAREVE)
You can make these up to 2 days before you need them. Cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate them, don't freeze them. Good hot or cold.
- 1 pound smoked whitefish, deboned and flaked
- 2 cups matzo meal
- 1/2 red bell pepper, minced
- 4 green onions, sliced
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 3 large eggs
- 1 to 2 teaspoons ground white horseradish
- 1 stalk celery, diced fine
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- Lemon wedges, for garnish
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Generously coat a 12-cup nonstick muffin pan with oil.
In a bowl combine the white fish, matzo meal, bell pepper, green onions, mayonnaise, eggs, horseradish, celery, salt and pepper and mix until combined.
Divide the mixture evenly among muffin cups.
Bake until crispy and cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges. Makes 12.
-- Eileen Goltz
Don't be tempted to cut down what appears to be a staggering dose of horseradish. When roasted, the pungent root becomes almost sweet, retaining its flavor but little of its bite.
- 3 pounds boneless center-cut pork loin, not trimmed or tied
- Chunk of peeled horseradish about 2-by-2 inches, grated ( 1/4 to 1/3 cup)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Trim off fat on top and in any easily removed pockets. Put fat in freezer until firm, then cut in 1-inch pieces. Combine in a food processor with 3 tablespoons horseradish and whirl to a puree.
Open out pork, cutting as needed to evenly distribute seasoning; sprinkle with salt, pepper and remaining horseradish. Tie roast into a neat, compact cylinder and place in a roasting pan.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper, spread pureed mixture evenly over meat. Roast for 20 minutes. Lower heat to 325 degrees and roast meat until it registers 170 degrees on a meat thermometer; start testing after an hour.
Let roast rest briefly before serving in thin slices.
-- "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide" by Elizabeth Schneider (Morrow, 1998)
BEET GRATIN WITH HORSERADISH
Steam, boil or oven-roast whole beets until they are crisp-tender. Transfer to a bowl of cold water and rub firmly to remove skins. Halve beets and cut into 1/4-inch slices.
- 6 heaping cups cooked, sliced beets
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 3/4 cup whipping cream or half-and-half
- 3/4 cup sour cream or creme fraiche
- 3 cloves garlic, pressed or minced fine
- 1/3 cup freshly grated or bottled horseradish
- 1 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Arrange half the beets in a buttered baking dish and season lightly with salt and pepper. In a bowl, combine both creams, garlic and horseradish. Pour half of the mixture over the beets, and repeat layers. Bake for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and bake for 10 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the mixture is bubbling. Serve hot.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
-- Susan Belsinger in "The Herb Companion" February-March 2011
ESCOFFIER'S SAUCE FOR SALMON OR TROUT
- 1/2 cup walnuts, shelled
- 1 tablespoon grated horseradish
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon white bread crumbs
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon (white) wine vinegar or lemon juice
Pour boiling water over nuts and leave for a moment or two, then rub off the papery skins. Chop nuts finely and mix with the rest of the ingredients, adding vinegar or lemon juice carefully -- the whole teaspoon may be more or less than you want.
This amount serves 6.
-- "Good Things" by Jane Grigson (Bison, 2006)
TUNA SAUVAGE WITH HORSERADISH
Sushi-grade tuna should be used here.
- 3/4 pound tuna fillet, trimmed of membranes
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons peanut, safflower or canola oil
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated or bottled horseradish
- 1 tablespoon drained chopped capers
- 2 tablespoons minced onion
- 2 tablespoons minced scallion greens
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 daikon radish, 5 to 6 inches long, sliced into 20 1/4-inch rounds
Cut tuna into large chunks, place in a food processor, pulse until fish is finely chopped but still retains some texture.
In a bowl, whisk mustard, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, oil and horseradish. Combine well and add tuna, capers, onion, scallion, salt, pepper. Thoroughly mix again. Mound on a plate and surround with daikon slices, or place a teaspoon of tuna on each slice and serve that way.
Makes 20 hors d'oeuvres.
-- "The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook" by Sally and Martin Stone (Clarkson Potter, 1991)
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