What can I say, I’m a bit of a nerd. With that, I thought I’d start a bit of a series here that is all about the history of our food. Where it comes from, what health benefits it offers, how to use it, tips for preparing it, and eventually, when I get my hands on a little bit of land, how to grow or raise it. I think it’s important to know where our food comes from and how it nourishes not only our bodies but also our souls. Something has been lost. And I’d like to use this small part of the internet to explore our history and relationship with food.
To start, let’s start in a most unlikely place, with a strangely strong and pungent little plant that brings us horseradish. Something that as I child I did not like at all but now, strangely enough, I love.
Horseradish – AKA Armoracia rusticana and Armoracia lapathifolia
According to Food Lover’s Companion, this is an ancient herb that is native to eastern Europe but now grows in other parts of Europe as well as the US. It’s one of the five bitter herbs of Jewish Passover. It has spiked green leaves that can be used in salads but it’s roots are what it’s better known for. These roots are large, long, and tapered with thin light brown skin and white flesh, and pungently spicy. Horseradish is a member of the cabbage family. It’s related to such tasty things as mustard, radish, kale, cauliflower, and Brussel Sprouts. Okay, Brussel Sprouts are not that good but some people love them. Those people are just down right weird in my book. Haha!
The roots are harvested in the Spring and Fall and can be found in many grocery stores. Sometimes you might had to pop into a specialty market or look to your farmer’s market to find the fresh roots. You’ll want to choose roots that are firm and without signs of blemishes or withering. The fresh stuff should be refrigerated in a plastic bag and peeled before use. Most commonly you can find horseradish bottled. The white version has been preserved with vinegar while the red version has been bottled in beet juice. It can also be found dried, though I haven’t ever found it.
According to The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, if you opt to prepare your own fresh horseradish, you’ll want to grate the root and then mix it with vinegar in order to preserve that peppery bite. It has to do with an enzyme, isothiocyanates, and other things that I won’t bore you with.
It was used by the Egyptians in 1500 BC, the early Greeks, and Romans for it’s medicinal properties. It was added to smelling salts, chewed to ease toothaches, in poultices for gout, to prevent scurvy, and more. It’s even been said that it was used, with vinegar, to remove freckles. Thank you, but I’ll be keeping my freckles just as they are. It appears that it wasn’t until 1597 that the German’s started to use it as a condiment for meat and fish. From there, it spread into France, and then onto England. The early settlers brought it to North American and by the 1840’s it was growing wild near Boston. By the mid-1850’s, there were farms in the Mid-West that had begin commercial cultivation.
The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods says that it is an under researched medicinal food with little research being done to either support or refute it’s historical uses. We do know though that is can help protect against food borne illness. Recent research shows that it protects against Listeria, E. Coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and more. One of the chemicals that causes the pungent aroma is also a very powerful antibacterial ingredient and constitutes 60 percent of the horseradish oil. Horseradish also stimulates the release of bile from the gallbladder helping it to maintain a healthy gallbladder and improved digestion. When bile secretion is increased it helps to digest fats and oils as well as removing waste and cholesterol from the body.
Some interesting tips I found about using the stuff are:
1 tbsp of the freshly grated stuff has the potency of 2 tbsp of prepared (the stuff found in your local grocery store) horseradish.
To make your own version of the stuff you find in the grocery store, take 1 tbsp tired horseradish, 1 tbsp vinegar, 1 tbsp water and a little salt to taste. This will equal 2 tbsp.
You can also make some of the fresh stuff too but rumor has it that this stuff makes the store bought kind pale in comparison. Apparently, true horseradish aficionados go for the stuff raw and freshly grated. It’s said that you should always grate fresh horseradish in a well ventilated room with an open room. The stuff can burn your nose and eyes. The more finely the mincing and grating the more pungent the flavor. I am so going to have to try this!!! I’ll let you know how it goes.
Recipes with Horseradish:
Do you guys have any tips or secrets when it comes to horseradish? How about any lore or history? Interesting facts? Anything? Please share.
Until next time!