HORSERADISH ~ Armoracia rusticana
This year's Herb of the Year is a great choice for many reasons. First, it is not what many consider an "herb", but rather, a food--and not even a food that a lot of people like. Second, as widespread antibiotic use has led to resistant bacteria and germs, Horseradish can really come into its own as a tasty food, immune system builder and as a wonderful aid to all contagious and bacterial diseases. If you are amongst those who think they do not like "hot" foods, let this Herb of the Year designation spur you to at least give Horseradish a try.
I, in fact, am one of those who does not particularly enjoy really hot or spicy foods, but my experience of Horseradish has been interesting. I had never had it--or even really heard of it, when as a young wife, I joined my husband's family for my first Passover seder. When it came time, as part of the seder ritual, to eat horseradish on matzoh, I took a big bite......and thought I was going to die...my eyes watered, my mouth was on fire---yet it is not proper to take a drink at that point...and...I had to keep this all to myself so as not to disrupt the meal and embarrass myself. Each year since, I dutifully have taken my bit of horseradish to symbolize the bitterness of slavery--but it is a very SMALL bite.
A year or so later, we moved to upstate New York, where I was to find out quickly, that due to the climate, people are prone to sinus problems. Just getting into herbs full force at that time, I discovered that horseradish...grated and sniffed periodically, was one remedy for sinus infections. I kept a jar in the refrigerator and every time I opened the door, I took a deep whiff. After several days, I could feel the difference. The next spring, I bought some horseradish roots and planted them at the edge of the garden.....where they have continued to grow and prosper for over 25 years.
As I began to teach classes, I always served a lunch with herbal foods that were appropriate to the topic of the workshop. My husband was the chef and LOVES hot foods and made a horseradish dip for my students---which I did not think would go over well at all. They LOVED it....all my students, for years, have loved it and begged for the recipe....which my husband was very pleased to keep to himself, but which I will finally share with you here:
CANOLA mayonnaise--1 cup
2-3 Tbs. of prepared white horseradish
There is nothing else in it!! The amount of horseradish can be adjusted to taste, but he says the key is the canola mayo--that other types of mayo do not turn out the same. He also feels that some prepared horseradish has too many additives--so go with the natural type--he uses "Farmer's" brand.
All that secrecy for something so simple!
So, for me, Horseradish is a perfect herb as it is used in several seemingly unrelated, but all deeply healing ways--ritual, food and medicinal.
As with most plants extensively used by people, there is a rich history of lore and medicinal remedies from all over the world. Horseradish is no exception. Cultivated in Egypt, the subject of Greek myths (one tells of the Oracle at Delphi telling the god Apollo that horseradish is worth its weight in gold), a plant that was a necessity brought to America by early settlers, horseradish survives today mainly as an ingredient in various condiments or dishes, but never is the star of a meal. However, amongst traditional healers, it is regaining some of its past glory as a valuable medicine---one that helps a variety of illnesses, yet is non-toxic and nutritious.
I am a neglectful gardener. Horseradish is supposed to be dug frequently and the crown replanted for new growth to keep roots from getting too fibrous. However, I have found, that if dug for general family usage, the plot will grow way faster than it could possibly be used and that the old woody roots simply grow next to new young roots, that are tastier and more potent. The old roots may not be good, but their leaves are fine and nobody ever mentions the leaves! Roots are best dug in early spring or late fall, but the leaves can be eaten in salads or steamed with other greens any time of year. Like garlic, the leaves/stems have a milder taste. Leaves are huge--some of mine are lmost 3 feet long and after spring, are not tender, but fine to eat if chopped. For abraised skin, infections or bruising, the leaves make a fine poultice as well. For those who suffer recurring urinary infections--while it may seem counter intuitive--th eoils in horseradish kill the infections.
My horseradish patch began with 2 roots, planted in full sun at the northern end of my garden. Since that time it has expanded to approximately an 8' diameter and survived having several cords of wood dumped on it, flooding and constant digging by students who did always observe the wildcrafting rules to replace dirt after digging. As with most invasive types of plants---once you have it, you will never get rid of it. If you try to dig it out or till it under, all those tiny pieces will regrow. Plant it away from other cultivated crops. As for me, I have a bit less lawn to mow. There are a few pests said to like to horseradish--the same ones that like other Brassicas--cabbage worm, etc. But I have never noticed them and if you have a large patch, there is plenty for you and the pests.
Digging horseradish is not too difficult, but working with it can be. Being a member of the Cruciferae family (broccoli, radishes, mustard, etc.) it's active ingredients are sulphur and ally isothiocyanate. These act to build immunity and increase circulation, aiding in decongestion, circulatory issues and "damp" illnesses such as arthritis. The smell is overwhelming once it is minced or peeled, so ventilation has to be considered when making preparations from fresh roots. A class of apprentices once dug and then made their own prepared horseradish in a food processor in the kitchen. I asked that the cover be kept on until we went outside to divvy it up into individual bottles--but someone lifted the lid and we had to leave the house (actually had to run from the house with our eyes tearing) for the remainder of the afternoon. From then on, I have hooked my food processor up to an extension cord and done everything out on the porch.
In making prepared horseradish, the process is simple, but a decision needs to be made about what it will be used for and how strong you want it. I make different batches to be used for eating and sniffing. To eat it, most people like to peel it first as the skin will make it look a bit dark. Cut it into cubes and then process it with a tiny bit of COLD water. At this point, add 1/3 cup of vinegar to each 2 cups of grated horseradish, bottle it and store in the refrigerator---where it will keep for 5 months or so before losing its strength. It CAN NOT be canned to keep longer--heat destroys its taste and medicinal properties. This process will make a nice mild ingredient for however you want to use it in cooking---BUT--if you want it really hot/spicy, wait about 10 mins after grinding it to add the vinegar . Adding the vinegar immediately makes it milder. In any case, be prepared to bottle it fairly quickly as it will oxidise/turn brown fairly quickly. If you have a root cellar, you can store unpeeled roots there all winter and make your prepared horseradish as needed, or grate small bits into mashed potatoes, into eggs, into a butter for veggies or fish, dressings, mac&cheese.....
Cooking these days is a lot more creative than when I was younger. I read a recipe where horseradish was used in a dessert! Just a little goes a long way, but can really make a recipe memorable. It pairs especially well with apples, peaches and pears. The dip recipe above can be used as the mayo component in deviled eggs or egg salad.
Of course, as with the best types of herbal medicine, eating a bit of something tasty every day, that also works to detoxify and tonify your system, is great preventative care.....effortless and part of your day, rather than seen as a medicine. If you are a regular sufferer of upper/lower respiratory complaints, sluggish circulation, frequent contagious illnesses, aching joints, cramps or brittle hair/nails........give this Herb of the Year a try. No need for dosages or worry about how/when to take it....just eat it!
To read more about Horseradish: