Versatile, Fiery, Fabulous Root
Horseradish was named “Herb of the Year” for 2011 by the International Herb Association, so it’s fitting to honor this often under-appreciated herb which has a long history of medicinal use. As early as 1500 BC, Europeans rubbed this peppery root on sore joints to alleviate rheumatism and pressed it against foreheads to relieve headaches. One of its folk names, “stingnose,” is appropriate as horseradish, when ingested, heats up the sinuses. The Germans and Danes were probably the first Europeans to use horseradish as a condiment for fish and meats during the Middle Ages. At first, horseradish was a laborers’ and farmers’
condiment in England, the flavor considered too strong for the gentle stomachs of aristocrats. Slowly the pungent root gained popularity in Britain as a sauce served with roast beef. Horseradish sauce in America became one of the first American commercially prepared sauces to hit supermarket shelves in the 1950’s. Today horseradish sauce is widely used as a condiment for fish, beef, sausages, chicken, egg salad, potato salad, and beets. It is very important in Russian and Eastern European cuisine and is often enjoyed as a pickled snack in the Middle East.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) has a wide array of medicinal benefits. Allyisolthiocynate, or mustard oil, is the active constituent in horseradish root. Other chemical compounds in the root have anti-oxidant and detoxification functions. Horseradish root also contains good amounts of vitamin C which boost the immune system naturally. The root has moderate amounts of the vital minerals sodium, potassium, manganese, iron, copper, zinc, and magnesium. The root’s oil is a natural decongestant so it is very helpful for sinus infections.
Herbalists also recommend horseradish for common colds, influenza and lung congestion. Horseradish is a strong diuretic so it can flush fluids out of the system. A classic remedy for hoarseness and coughs is a syrup of grated horseradish, honey, and water. Horseradish stimulates digestion, increases the appetite and protects the intestinal tract. An external poultice of grated root can be applied to stiff muscles, sciatica, and rheumatism.
Grating horseradish root releases the aromatic oil, but it evaporates quickly so most recipes call for adding a prepared sauce on already cooked dishes. When cooked, the root has a sweet, nutty flavor, so it’s a superb addition to any casseroles or stews made with root vegetables, winter squashes, and members of the Brassica family. Young leaves give a nutritious boost to salads. The grated root adds a zest to soups and sauces and horseradish mayonnaise spices up deviled eggs, coleslaw potato salad, a dipping sauce for artichokes, or combined with ketchup for a cocktail sauce for seafood.
Horseradish needs lots of space to grow as its roots spread easily. It thrives in well-drained, enriched soil free from weeds. Take root cuttings and lay the root in a hole about 12 to18 inches deep with the wide end up. Plants will grow up to three feet tall and just as wide. The tastiest, most tender roots come from the first year plants so some gardeners dig up the roots each autumn and replant them in the spring. Roots can be stored in a cool, dry place for the winter.
Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar has a famous recipe for Fire Cider Vinegar made with grated horseradish, garlic, gingerroot and cayenne with a little honey and cider vinegar (best if organic). Drink small sips to prevent colds and the flu (not for small children). There are many fabulous recipes for horseradish online. The March 2011 edition of “The Herb Companion” magazine has some of the best. Hope you’ll give horseradish a try to spice up some of your holiday cooking.
Ruth Madocks handcrafts local, organic products and grows many varieties of herbs in her garden.