March Madness

 The crazy, stormy weather seems to have lessened. March decided to come in fairly quietly, and the snow has finally begun to melt. It's time to begin thinking of the upcoming season of planting, if you haven't already. Emerging plants, peeking out from under their warm blanket of snow, prove that spring is coming at last. Some perennials are already showing signs of growth, with tight little buds just barely in sight. One of these is horseradish, the IHA Herb of the Year for 2011.
Horseradish
The International Herb Association has been promoting the idea of herbs since 1991. This program was begun in order to encourage herb growing, and to educate the public on the uses of herbs. Originally, IHA established an Herb Week, with fact sheets, recipes, and ideas for events in order to create enthusiasm and interest in herbs. In 1995, IHA began the Herb of the Year as a vehicle to concentrate on a specific herb that was useful in at least three ways, be it culinary, medicinal, ornamental, etc. The herb chosen by the Association for this year is Horseradish, which some consider to be an odd choice. However, horseradish is a useful plant, indeed, and its use throughout time has earned it the right to be so honored.

The Egyptians knew about the powers of horseradish as far back as 1500 BC. The Oracle at Delphi claimed that the radish was worth its weight in lead, the beet was worth its weight in silver, but the horseradish was worth its weight in gold. The botanical name for horseradish, Armoracia rusticana, probably refers to the fact that it grows naturally near the sea. The first mention of the plant as "horseradish" was in Gerard's Herbal, and its use was medicinal. It has been used for back pain and to alleviate the symptoms of rheumatism. It was also believed to be able to repel evil, and it was used as an aphrodisiac. It came into use as one of the five bitter herbs at Passover. Today, we use it mainly as a condiment, with six million gallons being produced each year in this country. It is high in vitamin C, and has anti-microbial properties, which helps preserve meat. It is often served with roast beef and smoked sausages such as kielbasa. And of course, we serve it mixed with chili sauce or other tomato-based sauces for Shrimp Cocktail.

Horseradish is a perennial plant, but it is better treated as an annual for the best root production. Small rootlets are planted in the spring, in good garden soil. Many will tell you that once you plant horseradish you will have it forever, as small pieces of the root will take hold and produce new plants. It also can be a rampant grower, so keep it confined where you don't mind it taking up space. The root should be harvested in late fall, as most of the root expansion takes place then. The flowers of the plant that appear in late spring are tasty, and can be used in salads. The leaves can be lacy, or large and crinkled, sometimes appearing at the same time on the plant. It is a rough-looking herb, so the back of the garden is a good spot for it.

To use the root, harvest as late as possible in the fall, before the ground freezes. Take off any small, side roots, which can be used for planting next year. Keep them moist and cool - a cellar situation is best. The large root can be stored for months in the refrigerator, if you wish. When preparing to process the root, remember that the name "stinknose" has been given to this plant with good reason. Plenty of air circulation (a fan works well) will reduce the acrid fumes that emerge when you grind the root. Adding vinegar to the ground horseradish tones down the bite a little. Put it into small jars, and keep it refrigerated. Air is an enemy of horseradish, causing it to turn brown and lose its characteristic zest.

Horseradish adds a nice tang to dips. Just add a tablespoon to your favorite onion or vegetable dip, and it will perk it right up. Adding a couple of tablespoons to mashed potatoes elevates them to another level. Here is a recipe I devised last year for Sorrel Soup. Adding the horseradish while cooking takes away the pungency, but gives a nice earthy taste to the soup.

SPRING SORREL SOUP

3 leeks, sliced

6-8 cups sorrel, roughly chopped

3 medium potatoes, cubed

8 cups vegetable stock

3 heaping tablespoons horseradish

In a stockpot, saute the leeks in olive oil until soft. Add the sorrel, and cook briefly until it wilts, stirring well. Add the potatoes and vegetable stock and cook until potatoes are done, about 20 minutes. Add the horseradish and black pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and puree until smooth. Serve with a dollop of sour cream (which can be mixed with some horseradish, if you want more oomph!).

Enjoy the month of March,

Karen