Aug 21, 2015

Horseradish for Sweetness

"The radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold." As Apollo reported from the Delphic oracle, found in Waverly Root's book Food, 1903
Last Wednesday, on a brief 24 hour visit to my parents house in Maine, I realized that August is truly the hour of harvest - at least in Maine, where wild blueberries coat the fields in sweetness, and vegetables beg to be brought inside and eaten.

Because I don't actively work on a farm, nor do I have a garden of my own, I get a strong itch this time of year to be outside collecting edible things. I hope this is some kind of genetic firing, those ancient hunter-gatherer genes cuing my brain that soon the days will be colder, the nights longer, and I best store up what I can to survive. It'd be cool if I could prove that, but I am no scientist, alas.

My mother and I collected baskets of blueberries while my dad worked under the barn with our neighbor, digging out a space in the dirt to store the tractors. Then we collected zucchini, which were beginning to take over the garden, and we admired the pumpkins that were beginning to swell (she planted the variety you see at State Fairs, the ones that get to be 600 lbs). There were loads of cherry tomatoes too, and herbs beyond belief, and then I remembered the old patch of horseradish growing in the corner of the garden:

I grabbed a small shovel from the barn, began digging, broke the shovel, went up to the house to apologize to dad, went back to the barn, grabbed another shovel, and this time successfully dug up a section of horseradish. Right away you can smell the pungent root, which is actually a relative of a West Asian cabbage, and after soaking and scrubbing it down, the scent was even more lovely: a clean sharpness like the snap of freshly dried linen. Grating horseradish releases its full flavor, as does drying and powdering it. I later learned that this is because sinigrin, the chemical compound locked up in its cells, is released during this process (grating or crushing) and is why you might smell a hint of horseradish when you chop up Brussels sprouts, another brassica family member. Horseradish, or Amoracia rusticana got its name - some believe - by a mispronunciation of its German name, which was "searadish" or "meerrettich." Meerrettich became 'mareradish' and then the mare became a horse. A funny linguistic evolution, if it's true!

From my journal that day:

 Harvested: 6 oz horseradish from side yard, with large yellow spider watching. Grated and added cider vinegar. Stung my eyes!

Now that I had my grated horseradish preserved in vinegar, I was brainstorming creative new ways to use it as a flavoring. My mother read me the following a passage from an old cookbook she had in the kitchen:
"To keep milk sweet: put into a panfull of milk 1 spoonfull of horseradish. It will keep it sweet for days." - Francis Folsom, The White House Cookbook, 1887
I've added plenty of horseradish to Bloody Mary's, to roast beef sandwiches (mixed into mayo - delicious) and as a side for roasted potatoes or smoked salmon. But never milk! Interestingly, cream is often added to horseradish to calm it's pungent bite, but I never thought of using it for the reverse purpose.

Wasabi is also an Asian cabbage relative, but native to East Asia as opposed to West; it likes to grow on the banks of rivers in Japan. But while you may think you are eating pure wasabi when you dine out on sushi, it's most likely powdered horseradish, dyed green. True wasabi, Wasabi japonica, has a green tint to the root, unlike horseradish which is ivory. Apparently it's a difficult plant to grow, and therefore few grow it, making it a valuable crop. (And I thought saffron was a good cash crop!) As I read in a BBC article from last year, a farmer named Mr. Oates is quoted saying: 
"It is much like gold - we expect to pay a lot for gold. Well, we expect to pay a lot for wasabi," 

I am ok settling for horseradish, especially since finding the fresh stuff. As is my friend the yellow spider, who made a home among the leaves.

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