Horseradish

A large piece of horseradish rootThe gnarly root pictured at left is horseradish.

Horseradish is a hearty plant; it can flourish almost anywhere in our fair city.  I remember when I was in culinary school I would catch a bus at the intersection of 118 Avenue and 106 Street, and there was a perfectly healthy horseradish plant living in a crack in the sidewalk.

Horseradish could in fact be described as invasive.  It doesn’t spread too fast, but once it’s established, it’s nearly impossible to remove.  I hack enormous chunks out of the root system of my plant and it always recovers.

The root has a pungent flavour very similar flavour to its relatives mustard and wasabi.  (Actually most of the “wasabi” that you’ve eaten with your sushi is actually just horseradish powder dyed green.[1])  It can be finely grated and eaten raw for delicious, mustardy pangs of flavour.  I first saw this way of serving horseradish in Austria, where they grate fresh horseradish into a snowy heap to accompany boiled beef and cured pork.  Before that I was only familiar with prepared horseradish, which is grated horseradish that has been treated with vinegar and jarred.

Horseradish, like mustard, only develops its hot pungency once its cell walls are ruptured by grating or crushing, at which time an enzyme liberates the irritant molecule.    Acid slows the enzymes and to a certain extent and “sets” the pungency, so the longer you wait to add vinegar after grating horseradish, the hotter your preparation will be.

I mix roughly one part each of grated horseradish and cider vinegar by weight, then add a bit of salt and white sugar.  This mixture stores well in the fridge, though it will slowly discolour and turn grey without the addition of preservatives.

Some homemade prepared horseradish

As an aside, the leaves of the horseradish plant are also delicious.  They have the same sharp flavour as the root.  They are best enjoyed in spring, as they get tough and fibrous later in the year.

Horseradish greens

 

Sources

1. This according to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking.  Page 417 of the first Scribner revised edition 2004.

Horseradish Liberation Front (HLF)

Part I: Horseradish as Weed

Horseradish is a common weed in Edmonton, as invasive as it is delicious. The plant is pretty easy to identify by its distinctive curly leaves. If allowed to flourish, they eventually grow into wild, drooping masses that look like Sideshow Bob’s hair. There happens to be a particularly robust example in a friend’s back alley. I visited it this morning to see if my clumsy attempt at harvesting it last summer had killed it.As you can see, it’s doing fine. You can also see all the dead stalks from last year’s growth around the base. It’s a very prodigious plant.

A horseradish plant, in springLast summer I was invited to help myself to the spicy root of the above plant. I had no idea what I was doing, but in August I cut away some of the growth, dug through the hard gravel, and hacked a few good chunks of root out. I used some, grated and mixed with vinegar, on barbequed steak that night. The rest I left in large pieces and froze. The taste was unmistakably horseradish, but with a fairly pronounced, bitter, woody taste. There is heat, but the mustard-flavour is pushed into the background by the woody taste.

Part II: How to Cultivate Horseradish

Since that first taste of semi-wild horseradish last summer I have done a little research.

Usually the root is harvested in the fall, after the first frost has killed off all the leaves. This is done for a few reasons: it makes harvesting easier, because you don’t have to hack through the fresh stalks and leaves to get to the root; it maximizes the growing season and therefore the size of the root; and apparently the frost helps develop a more pungent flavour.

Ideally the entire root is pulled up every year, and then one of the small offshoots is replanted. Apparently older roots tend to taste woody, which explains my experience last summer. Unfortunately, the above-mentioned plant is so well-established it would take an excavation crew of twenty men to pull up the entire root and replant.


Part III: Liberating Wild Horseradish


A horseradish plant in the middle of a patch of city-owned grass.Later this morning, I stumbled across another, smaller horseradish plant, growing on a city-owned patch of lawn, just a few feet from the sidewalk.

I considered the Sisyphean life-cycle of this plant: grow, get mowed by city worker, grow, get mowed, et c.

I decided I would liberate this horseradish. I dug it up and replanted it in an inconspicuous location close to my house so that I can harvest it properly every year. (You may think that changing its naturally-occurring, semi-wild state to one of strict cultivation is the opposite of “liberating”. Let’s say I liberated it from neglect. And lawnmowers.)

The root was much, much longer than I expected. As I was digging on public property, and worried I was drawing attention, I rushed the job and accidentally snapped the root, leaving a few inches in the soil. It seems that to pull up even a modest horseradish root, you have to be prepared to dig a hole a foot wide and a foot deep. At this point my re-located horseradish is looking a little sickly. I gave it fresh soil and water. Hopefully it will pull through to garnish my steaks.