Chuck Fraser pulled his 1971 Chevy pickup “Red” onto a wide shoulder behind the Chinese restaurant off Highway 82 in Enterprise, Ore. Wearing a short-billed cap and striped overalls, he sprang from the truck, grabbed a double-aught shovel and a burlap bag from the bed, and tromped through the ditch and up the slope. Steve, Pam and I followed. In late October, waist-high weeds along the road cut, dry as straw, tangled and migrated uphill, stopping abruptly at the border of a well-manicured lawn. Sprinkled throughout the landscape were low-lying clusters of apple-green leaves as big as rhubarb in May.
“Is that it?” Pam asked, pointing to one with the tip of her shovel.
“Sure is,” Chuck said, and we all encircled the plant.
The edges of its spear-shaped leaves withered in the sun-cracked soil. The stems gathered at a central point into a large bouquet. Like most treasures, what we most desired was buried beneath the surface: horseradish root gone wild. In order to claim it, we would have to dig.
Armoracia rusticana is a weed that proliferates in back yards, fields, roadsides and homesteads throughout this country. Introduced from its native southern and eastern European roots by immigrants and adventuresome gardeners, the horseradish, once established, went feral and can now be found in the most unexpected and inhospitable places.
In search of the rousing scent, fiery flavor
Most people don’t recognize the horseradish plant. Those who do often choose to ignore it. The reason for its disfavor isn’t the fact that horseradish is misnamed; it is neither a food for equines nor a type of radish, but because it isn’t a vegetable in the steamed, roasted or sautéed sense. Horseradish root, historically thought of as a medicine, traditionally present at seders to represent bitter herbs, is most widely used as a condiment.
With its peculiar and overwhelming odor, it is not universally beloved. But this crucifer’s rousing scent and fiery flavor are precisely why we had come to this unlikely foraging site.
“You girls dig while we hold the bag,” Chuck said. We laughed, then poised our shovels on the sandy soil and thrust them in, acknowledging that root digging was traditionally women’s work. On their knees, Chuck and Steve ripped away the long-stemmed leaves to expose the root top. Pam and I pried from below with our tools as the men clawed the parched dirt like gophers, and Steve extracted a yellowed root as long and slender as a carrot. “That’s a good root,” Chuck said, pronouncing “root” like “foot.” “The smaller ones have more heat.”
An aroma punctuated the warm late afternoon air, sharp like yellow mustard and heady like cayenne pepper. Each time we pulled another root from the soil — and each plant had dozens of them — it emitted its stinging scent. “It’s like a poison and will make you sick,” Chuck said. “You can’t ride home in a car with a bag of them or you’ll feel like you got the flu.”
Despite his warnings, I inhaled deeply as we dug. My mouth watered for the foods it called to mind: fat shrimp in cocktail sauce, a warm roast beef sandwich, a gin Bloody Mary flecked with black pepper.
On the horseradish grind
The volatile oil responsible for horseradish’s bite is sinigrin. It isn’t a poison, but it does contain sulfur, and extreme exposure can lead to unpleasant, though temporary, side effects. Over time, the oil dissipates and its natural pungency mellows. Cooking also tones it down. But for horseradish lovers, sinigrin is the elixir that makes it worth finding, and then grinding, perfectly fresh.
A few days after the dig, we collected in Chuck’s yard with our spoils: a dark pile of dirt-caked and smelly roots. One root is more than anyone needs, which is why, each fall, Chuck shares what he collects and grinds with friends at an outdoor fall harvest party.
After a thorough rinse, we peeled them down to their birch-colored flesh and cut them the size of wood chips. A variety of appliances, including a meat grinder, a juicer and a blender tackled grinding the fibrous chunks to bits as fine as sawdust. As we worked, the horseradish’s heady musk poured into the air and forced all but a few diehards to escape to fresh air periodically.
Once the horseradish was finely ground, we mixed it with vinegar to prevent all the volatile oils from escaping and to preserve the flavor. The resulting slurry is the most familiar form of horseradish, sold by supermarkets in jars that tend to languor in refrigerator shelves for years. But even pickled and jarred, horseradish’s piquancy fades, paling in a matter of months.
On the slope off the highway, the dirt was powdery dry from the lack of fall rain, which made for easy digging. Whenever we heard a snap that meant we’d broken the newest growth deep in the ground, the four of us said, “Aw,” like a disappointed chorus.
The roots were knobby and woody, some of them as thin as a twig, others as fat as a forearm. “Oh, that’s a beauty, Pam,” Chuck said as she uprooted a tender and long one. We sniffed and fed our appetites. We felt fine.
“We need to smear it on some beef,” Steve said.
Drivers on the highway rubbernecked. “They’re all wondering what we’re up to.” He added, “They think we’re digging up something valuable. Tomorrow they’ll be up here saying, ‘There’s nothin’ here but a bunch of weeds.’”
Slow-Roasted Beef With Horseradish Sauce
Lean top round is one of the most underrated and economical roasts that stays perfectly juicy and tender when baked in a 300 F oven. Sirloin tip roast is another lean roast that makes an excellent slow-roasted roast beef, while bottom round roast (aka rump roast) must be very thinly sliced and still offers some chew.
The horseradish sauce is adapted from a recipe in the 1883 cookbook and household manual, “The Successful Housekeeper.” Mustard and sugar mellow the horseradish hit while mayonnaise adds creaminess. Smear it on slices of roast beef, hot or cold. To substitute prepared horseradish, omit the vinegar.
Serves 8, with leftovers
For the roast beef:
1½ tablespoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 (3½- to 4-pound) top round roast
For the horseradish sauce:
2 tablespoons fresh grated or prepared horseradish
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
¼ teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons mild vinegar, such as apple cider or rice wine
1. Up to 48 hours in advance, season the beef with salt and pepper and put it on a rack in a roasting pan, fat side up. Refrigerate it uncovered until 1 hour before roasting.
2. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Roast until an internal-read thermometer reads 115 F, 1½ to 1¾ hours. Remove the roast if you like it very rare, or check the temperature every 10 minutes and remove it as soon as the center of the roast reaches 120 F for rare or 125 F for medium rare. Transfer the meat to a cutting board, tent it with aluminum foil, and let it rest for at least 20 minutes to reach its final serving temperature.
3. Meanwhile, combine the horseradish, mustard, sugar, mayonnaise and salt in a small bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the vinegar and stir to make a smooth sauce. Taste and add up to 1 tablespoon more vinegar if you like. Let stand for at least 15 minutes before serving to meld the flavors.
4. Slice the roast ¼-inch thick with a sharp slicing knife and serve with the horseradish sauce.
Photo: Feral horseradish. Credit: Emily Cooper