Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dig In - Horseradish (an estimable condiment)

The winter vegetable season is ahead and I for one am looking forward to it.   Months of potatoes, carrots, onions, leeks, rutabagas, turnips, cabbage, beets, squash, parsnips, kale, collards, brussels sprouts, daikon radishes, spinach, celeriac and more.  I personally find the winter vegetable line up even more interesting and satisfying than the summer choices. (If only  I could have homegrown tomatoes and a little basil in the winter, life would be perfect.  As it is home canned tomatoes and pesto are not a bad consolation prize.) 

If you are daunted by the idea of cooking and eating without "summer vegetables" like fresh tomatoes or green beans - let alone leaf lettuce - then I bring a word of hope and encouragement:


We have been mostly following the seasonal local food road - with occasional detours -  in our house for at least six years now and have developed many strategies for eating our way through late fall, winter and even early spring with no dependence on foreign vegetables.  No lettuce for months.  No imported tomatoes.  No hothouse cucumbers (well maybe a few).  No Chinese grown garlic. 

What is our secret?  CONDIMENTS.  These are the little spicy, vinegary, peppery, crunchy, pungent, sometimes sweet food items that bring zing to the plate.  Things like chutney, salsa, pickles, relishes, ketchups, mustards and horseradish.   Condiments add color, flavor and nutrition to a meal.  I even think they are kind of exciting. (Hey - to each his own, okay?)
Horseradish root in situ

A horseradish plant from our garden, nestled in a little creeping Charlie
Today we are going to learn about horseradish, which is one of my favorite condiments.  I just love the way it clears my sinuses.  Those glycoside sinigrins really pump me up.  They can make me cry, too, if I'm not careful.  The sting to the eyes of grated fresh horseradish root is much worse than onions.  But thanks to the modern food processor, the task of grating fresh horseradish is no longer an extreme kitchen sport. 

According to the Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook by Sally and Martin Stone, horseradish is an "ugly duckling"  and a member of the mustard family.   This is a picture of the horseradish that Frank dug from our garden yesterday morning.  I guess it is kind of ugly, even for a root vegetable.  But it has a great personality and is good to have as a friend.  Lots of people agree.
A freshly dug washed and trimmed horseradish root
 Horseradish was being eaten by Germans at least 400 years ago as a condiment with fish and meat dishes.  Some people say it was in England before the Romans got there.  It is used today in many kinds of sauces and dishes by the Scandinavians, British (they love it with roast beef), Germans, Poles, Russians and French.  Grated and mixed with vinegar, it is served at table with things like fish, roast beef, raw oysters, smoked meats or sausages.  When I was growing up it was an essential part of the pot roast experience.

One of my favorite ways to use horseradish is to make a sauce of prepared horseradish mixed with creme fraiche or sour cream.   A plate of roasted mixed winter root vegetables, drizzled with horseradish/creme fraiche sauce makes a fine meal all by itself.  And if you are not eating meat at this meal, you can afford to eat some fat calories from the creme fraiche.  If you are really watching calories, use a lowfat sour cream or even yogurt to make your sauce.  You could also make a white sauce (bechamel) with lowfat milk and add a big dollop of horseradish to that.

Horseradish loses its flavor quickly when exposed to heat.  The heat drives off the volatile oils and hence the unique flavor.  If you want to use horseradish in a cooked food, add it toward the end of cooking time and at low heat.

If you can find some good quality fresh horseradish root, it is worth it to grate it yourself. An uncut piece of root, if it is fresh when you buy it, will keep for many weeks wrapped in a ventilated bag in your refrigerator.  If it gets limp and soft then you must compost it because the bite is gone.  You can  make your own prepared horseradish.  All you need is a knife and a board, a peeler, a food processor, a bowl and spoon and some vinegar and a pinch of sugar and salt.  Here is how we do it at our house.
Scrub and peel root

Cut into one inch chunks, drop into a food processor, add just enough vinegar to help hold everything together and process until it is as smooth as you want it.    (Watch out for the volatile oils when you take off the cover!) You can use white, white wine, rice wine or even cider vinegar.

Add a pinch of salt and sugar to the horseradish mixture.  It should be smooth but not totally pulverized.

Place in clean glass jar, cover and refrigerate.  Horseradish will become somewhat milder over time.  It will keep for weeks but is best - and most potent - fresh. 
Proceed with caution.  This is powerful stuff.
Note:  I hope you have decided to sign up for an exciting Featherstone winter share.  If you have, you might consider purchasing this cookbook.  I have found it quite useful in developing my winter kitchen chops.

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