Horseradish barely registered on my food radar. My only real use for the stuff came once a year when I added heaping tablespoons of horseradish into the spicy sauce served with our shrimp cocktail on Christmas Day.
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But horseradish has recently come back into my life, and now I’m a fan.
My mother called me recently and told me that my father has started growing his own patch of horseradish behind his garden shed. She said that the next time I came to visit their home in Virginia, I needed to “record Dad grinding horseradish for posterity.” When my mom uses this phrase, it’s usually code for something she finds funny and often slightly ridiculous. Naturally, I agreed that this was just the thing to do and thanked her for the hot tip.
I’ve just returned from a trip to Virginia, and my mother was absolutely right. The process of grinding fresh horseradish is fascinating. Funny and ridiculous too. But mostly fascinating.
Horseradish plants will grow pretty much anywhere, at least anywhere with a decent amount of moisture and somewhat loose soil. It’s the ultimate survivor. My dad grows it in a patch behind his garden shed because it is a spot he didn’t need for anything else. He has a friend who grows it in a greenhouse and gave him the starts for his current patch.
Easy to grow
The great thing about horseradish is that you can keep it going year round. It’s best planted in the spring and can be harvested in fall, but you can really grow it, and eat it, any time.
You can harvest horseradish throughout the year, but the roots will be larger and have a stronger flavor the longer you wait. My dad dug up roots that were about eight months old and they were relatively small and mild in flavor. I thought it was delicious and suggested that eight months seemed like an ideal time to harvest. My father reminded me that he was growing his horseradish in poor soil and partial shade. Back on the family farm, my dad’s family grew a large plot of horseradish in their sunny garden bed. Grown in rich soil with plenty of sun, horseradish will grow large and strongly-flavored roots in eight months.
When my father harvested his crop, he cut the root about a half-inch from the green stem. Then he stuck the stem and partial root back in the ground to wait another six months for the next harvest.
He also cut off most of the leaves before replanting because, he says, the leaves will “suck up a lot of energy from the plant.”
After replanting the horseradish stubs, my father and I headed up to the house to clean and grind the roots. My dad washed the dirt off the roots, peeled them with a pocketknife and gave them a second cleaning.
Then he pulled out my grandmother’s old meat grinder and began to turn the fresh roots into the delicious condiment. While cranking the old metal handle, he told me to be careful not to grind it too fine or it will end up as mush.
As my father ground the horseradish he said, “Don’t poke your nose in there” and warned me that a deep breath of freshly ground horseradish would send me reeling. I didn’t risk it, especially because I was holding a camera. From 2 feet away I still got the point.
Beware the volatile oils
It turns out the fibrous roots of horseradish, once ground, immediately emit a volatile oil that irritates the membranes of the eyes and mouth. It’s powerful stuff when fresh — the same compound that gives mustard and wasabi their bite.
Those oils soon dissipate from the root, so traditionally the flavor is fixed in place (and toned down) by the addition of vinegar. My father put the ground root into a half-pint Mason jar and poured just enough white vinegar over it to cover it completely.
My father says the mixture will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month. I couldn’t wait that long. My father and I ate our freshly ground horseradish on steak, which he cooked specifically for this occasion. The steak was rare and the horseradish was sharp and hot — the perfect combination of flavors and texture.
I could now see why the pungent burn of horseradish has been relished since ancient Egypt, why it’s one of the bitter herbs of the Passover Seder, or why a guy named Heinz first made his fortune by bottling the stuff.
I’m now going to find a small patch in my garden, and get a couple of my father’s cut roots. And I hope he’s going to have more roots ready to harvest when it comes time to spike the bottled cocktail sauce on Christmas Day.
Top photo: Grinding fresh horseradish in my grandmother’s meat grinder. Credit: Susan Lutz