Deb Babcock: Horseradish - not a radish, but hot stuff all the same

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Get out your green thumb. Master gardener Deb Babcock provides gardening tips with master gardener Laura Anderson.

Get out your green thumb. Master gardener Deb Babcock provides gardening tips with master gardener Laura Anderson.

Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Cocktail sauce for shrimp wouldn't be right without tangy horseradish. It's a key ingredient in a creamy topping we use for fish and pork. My dad spreads it on his sandwiches.

This herb from the mustard family thrives in high altitude climates such as ours. Horseradish has nothing to do with horses nor with radishes. The name may have derived from the German name for the plant, "meerretich" in which "meer" sounds like mare in English.

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) needs a sunny location and soil that has been amended and broken up with some organic material mixed in. It is grown from root cuttings, called "sets," and should be planted as early in the spring as your soil allows since it needs a full growing season here in order to harvest the roots just before frost in the late fall.

Plant the horseradish sets about 12 to 24 inches apart, 2 to 3 inches into the soil. If you position them at a 45 degree angle, all pointing in the same direction, weeding and harvesting will be easier to do. This plant grows to a height of 2 to 3 feet and spreads 6 to 10 inches. And, speaking of spreading, this plant has a tendency to grow uncontrollably so you'll want to stay on top of plant maintenance and weed out unwanted seedlings.

To obtain the best quality horseradish, it's recommended that you strip the plant of all but its best sprout of leaves when the first leaves are 8 to 10 inches long; and then do this once more about 6 weeks later. To accomplish this, brush away the soil from the plant and gently lift the upper portion of the root, leaving the lower portion attached to the soil. Cut or break off all but the best leaves and rub away all the small roots growing from the crown and replace in the soil. This gives the plant one healthy root that can take water, air and nutrients from the soil without lots of other competition from secondary growth.

Wait until the latest possible date before frost to harvest horseradish, or even wait until spring just as the plant starts sending up new shoots. The roots look like white or cream-colored carrots. Dig them up using a garden fork or shovel, being careful to not injure the roots. If you planted them at an angle, simply tug sideways on the foliage to dislodge them from the soil. Cut away any side roots, saving those 8 inches or longer for replanting in the spring, and cut away the foliage. Store the new sets in a cool place (32 to 40 degrees) away from light until spring planting.

The tangy taste and smell of horseradish becomes apparent when you grate the root, releasing oils from the root cells. It's strong enough to make your eyes water, so a well-ventilated space for preparing horseradish is recommended. The simplest way to prepare it is to grate horseradish into white vinegar (not cider) and serve right away, storing any leftovers in a tightly capped jar in the refrigerator or freezer. The fresh roots should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer wrapped in dark plastic to keep out light, which turns the roots green and ruins the flavor.

Another way to grind fresh horseradish involves the use of a blender or food processor. Wash and peel the root and cut into small cubes. Add the cubes and a small amount of cold water and crushed ice and process. When it reaches the desired consistency, add white vinegar: 2 to 3 tablespoons and a half teaspoon of salt for each cup of horseradish. If you like your horseradish really hot, wait a few minutes before adding the vinegar since vinegar stops the enzymatic action, which makes horseradish fiery.

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