The humble horseradish has quite the kick.
Words Marilyn Wightman
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) has a hidden and powerful taste experience because it belongs to the Cruciferae family of plants. As its cousins are the cress and mustard family, it has a hot, pungent flavour.
Growing horseradish is easy. Cultivated for its root, it needs a well prepared and sunny bed. Dig deeply and incorporate plenty of good manure and compost when first preparing the ground.
Horseradish, like comfrey, grows from every small piece of root left behind when harvested. One learns from experience… my dad grew it in his main vege bed and rued the fact because when he turned the soil over, lots of baby horseradish plants emerged and he was not impressed with this herb his daughter had given him. So, grow it in a metre-square area of garden reserved for horseradish cultivation only.
Being a greedy feeder, the plant can deplete the soil of nutrients so give the patch an annual top-dressing of manure or compost to retain good soil condition. Horseradish also requires good drainage and needs two years to mature. When harvesting the roots, retain the smaller pieces and replant these 10cm deep in the ground for future cropping. The crown can be removed from the larger pieces being processed, but it will take longer to form a good thick root structure when replanted.
Horseradish plants in winter lose their leaves, dying right back to ground level. When they reemerge in spring from the rootstock, new leaves will get 30–40cm long. Horseradish is harvested once it has died down for winter.
It was classed originally in the same family as radish, under Raphanus rusticanus, and called ‘horse’ radish as the leaves were coarser and larger to distinguish it from the smaller radish vegetable.
The big, thick roots are similar in size and colour to parsnips. At this stage there is little indication of the hot, mustard-like flavour because the two chemical compounds sinigrin and myrosin remain inert, sitting side by side in separate cells within the root structure. When the root is scraped or bruised, however, sinigrin, which is a crystalline glucoside, is moistened and interacts with the enzyme myrosin. Immediately the separate cell walls are ruptured, the contents come together and kaboom! They react and create the famous, hot pungency that is mainly used in a sauce.
Once the root is lifted, plunge it into a bucket of water and leave it there until the roots are carried into the kitchen. (The volatile oil can be so pungent that just one drop will odorise a room.) Wash all dirt from the root and peel. This is best done under water also. The pungent vapour can be worse than onion peeling and causes most people’s eyes to water.
Quickly grate the roots and pack into containers with plastic lids. (Some people prefer to do this outside near a tap for ready water supply.) When each jar is full, top up the jar with white, cider or wine vinegar – or some people prefer to use lemon juice. Leave for an hour, so any air bubbles can dissipate, then lid the containers tightly and store in the fridge.
When needed for a sauce, lift enough out of the vinegar and process in a blender to prepare the needed recipe. This can be done by simply adding the minced horseradish to dressings and mayonnaise for salad use.
Traditionally, horseradish sauce is served with hot beef dishes. Process the horseradish and stir in an equal amount of whipped cream. This sauce is used with both beef and fish dishes.
Try grated horseradish root in mashed boiled eggs combined with chives and parsley for extra flavour. As a luncheon spread, this is delicious! Medicinally, horseradish is a stimulant, and adding a small amount to meat dishes, such as casseroles, can act as a spur to the digestive system to work well. It is high in vitamin C and is recommended to be used in homemade syrups for coughs and sinus problems. Being high in sulphur, it is useful when made into poultices and applied to the chest for coughs and to relieve rheumatic and sciatica pain.