Photo by Fotolia/Vera Kuttelvaserova
At any given point in time if you ask me what I want for dinner the answer will unequivocally be a burger. What can I say, I am a burger kind of gal. However, like my Aunt Sharlene, I like just about everything on it except the kitchen sink. Friends even joke that I like a little burger along with my condiments.
Speaking of condiments, of all the things that I pile high on mine, horseradish has never been on the list until I saw a friend load up. This added a nice “zing” to the flavor. So, I did a little digging on the two most popular natural condiments, horseradish and mustard.
Horseradish is a pretty simple plant, both to cultivate and to process. The term horseradish or prepared horseradish refers to the grated root of the plant, which is sometimes mixed with a small amount of vinegar for preservation. The intact plant in gardens has hardly any aroma. It is when it is cut or grated that the enzymes from the now-broken plant cells break down sinigrin to produce mustard oil, the very property that will irritate the mucus membranes of the sinuses and eyes.
The plants are perennials and are pretty easy to grow. The only requirement is a long growing season and winter temperatures cold enough to ensure plant dormancy. It grows in sun or partial shade and prefers moist, silty soils like those in river bottomland. Plant “crowns” bought from a nursery or roots purchased from a supermarket in early spring and allow a full growing season for the plants to establish themselves.
After the first frost, roots may be dug and divided. Usually, the main root is harvested and one or more offshoots of the main root are re-planted to produce next year’s crop. Two or three plants are more than sufficient for single family use. Beware though, horseradish plants are tough and persistent and left undisturbed in the garden, plants spread via underground shoots and can be invasive.
No surprise that the natural enzymes of the plant are its own natural defense against predators. It only takes a couple nibbles before predators walk away. Horseradish is also known to have medicinal qualities. It is said it can cure a stuffy nose. With the way it wakes sinuses up, can you believe that!
This flavor-packed root crop provides plenty of warmth (literally) to meals. The root has to be merely peeled and ground and it is ready to be used. Most often it is used straight on meats, vegetables and salads. It can be mixed with butter, used with sour cream, mixed with ketchup for seafood sauce or added to yogurt and used as a dip.
As horseradish is a root crop, its cousin condiment, mustard is prepared from the ground seeds of the mustard plant. The whole, ground or cracked mustard seeds are mixed with water, salt, lemon juice and other flavorings and spices to create the different varieties of mustard we all love.
The “heat” of the mustard is determined by the seed type, type of preparation and ingredients added. Mixing ground mustard seeds with water causes a reaction between two compounds, producing mustard oil which is the same as that found in horseradish. Temperature of the water and concentration of acids such as vinegar determine the strength of the finished product. Hotter liquids are more hostile to the strength-producing compounds. Thus, hot mustard is made with cold water and milder mustards are made with hot water.
Like horseradish, mustard plants are fairly easy to grow. Unlike its cousin, the entire mustard plant is edible. Whole seeds are used in pickling, the tender greens are tossed in salads, mature leaves are steamed and eaten and the crushed, spicy seeds are used to make a large variety of prepared mustards. Plants like rich, well-drained soil and prefer cool weather with constant moisture. Sow seeds in spring as the frost deadline nears then thin the seedlings to 8 to 9 inches apart. The hotter and dryer the weather, the faster the plants go to seed.
Harvest the seed pods just after they turn from green to brown before they are entirely ripe otherwise they will shatter and the fine seed will go to every corner of the garden. Since mustard plants are blissfully free of insect and disease problems, you could end up with more mustard than you bargained for.
Air dry pods in a dry place for two weeks. Once dry, gently crush pods to remove seeds and hulls. Grind and mix seeds with water, vinegar and other ingredients to create the yellow condiment known as mustard. Just a little tidbit here, black seeds are used to make Dijon mustard, the variety created and used by many French chefs. However, the only true Dijon mustard has to be certified to come from that city. Guess we all have been eating a lot of fake mustard!
Mustard is an ancient plant and is second only to pepper in spice popularity in the United States. It contains no cholesterol, but does have calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and Vitamin B. It has been used as an oil, spice and medicinal plant and has curative properties as an appetite stimulate, digestive aid, decongestant and increases blood circulation. Because of its antibacterial properties, it does not require refrigeration, will not grow mold, mildew or harbor harmful bacteria. Folklore even has it that you can sprinkle mustard powder in your socks to prevent frostbite. The jury is still out on that one.
Mustard is also a winemaker’s friend. If you happen through California wine country in the spring the vineyards are awash with yellow mustard flowers. It seems that it repels some insects and attracts syrphied flies which are beneficial predators that attack vine-chewing insects. When mustard is plowed back in the soil it acts as green manure and releases nitrogen.
Horseradish and mustard would be a welcome addition to any home garden, as they are easy to grow and fun to experiment with making your own condiments. Besides, homemade is always better. So, if you want to treat your taste buds to a little heat and kick it up a notch, feel free to spread them on!