Spice It Up with Illinois Horseradish Recipes
Before Robert Gerstenecker plants a kernel of corn into the ground in March or April, he’s already planted horseradish crowns on his farm near Centralia. Come Nov. 1, he’ll start harvesting the root crop that has made Illinois famous.
More than likely, the horseradish you use to add zip or tang to food comes from an Illinois farm. More than two-thirds of our nation’s supply of this pungent vegetable root comes from Madison and St. Clair counties in southwestern Illinois. Most of it grows near Collinsville in an area known as the American Bottoms, the most concentrated region of horseradish production in the world. The superior quality of Illinois horseradish results from fertile soils, a suitable climate and producers skilled in special cultural methods.
“Originally, we were in the American Bottoms,” says Gerstenecker, who farms with his father, Ed. “But we moved an hour to the east. Horseradish is a root crop that likes those sandy soils of the American Bottoms, but managed correctly, you can raise it in the clay-based soils we have.”
Many theories exist as to how horseradish got its name. It has nothing to do with a horse, and it’s not exactly a radish. In fact, the family of mustard, cabbage and broccoli also comprises horseradish. Generally, people fall into one of two categories – they either love horseradish, or they hate it. The root has a very strong, pungent flavor that has been known to clear people’s sinuses. Japanese horseradish goes by the name wasabi, the green condiment next to your sushi roll that often causes eyes to water.
Horseradish’s name comes from the German meerrettich, or sea radish, since it grew near the sea. The word became corrupted into “mareradish” by the English and eventually morphed into “horseradish.”
The horseradish crop of 2014 measured the best the industry had harvested in a long time.
“We had good, abundant moisture and temperatures were constant – that’s just what horseradish likes,” Gerstenecker says. “In 2015, we had early rains, but then things got dry. It was a good crop, but not our best ever.”
After harvesting the root with a two-row, pull-type, modified potato harvester, it goes into a cold storage unit. Gerstenecker has a 30-by-60-foot unit that keeps the roots from dehydrating or molding. Next year’s starts, which serve as the seeds, also go into cold storage.
“With horseradish, you have to have those starts,” he says. “One of the biggest things in getting started is having those plant stocks. It’s one of the contributing factors to get started in the business. We’re very careful with those – they’re like gold.”
His favorite way to eat fresh horseradish: mixed with apple butter and spread on a piece of sausage.
For the best horseradish root flavor, use it raw. Simply peel off the dark skin and freshly grate. However, once exposed to air or heat, the grated horseradish will eventually darken and become very bitter. When packaged, food manufacturers typically add vinegar to help stabilize the color and prevent bitterness. Even so, prepared horseradish will eventually darken and should be used within three or four months of opening.
Most commonly used as a condiment, horseradish can also serve as an ingredient within other condiments, which can help tone down its strong flavor. The famous cocktail sauce served with cold shrimp consists of horseradish and chili sauce. Mix horseradish with mayonnaise to make a delicious spread for sandwiches.
We share a few other recipes to enjoy Illinois’ unique crop. It adds a kick to mashed potatoes and salad dressing, and makes a zesty sauce for steak or tacos. Stuffing a burger takes it to the next level, but try using horseradish for a spicy yet pleasant surprise in grilled turkey burgers.