Warning: Sinus Clearing Ahead

I was such a picky eater as a kid, no one would have predicted that I'd someday be a fan of hot, spicy, and strong flavored foods. Hot chile powder from New Mexico, wasabi paste with sushi, jalapenos - yum! Now I've up'd the bar, with my homegrown, homemade prepared horseradish.

One of those ugly dried roots in the grocery produce section caught my attention two years ago. I wondered if it would grow if I planted it in my veggie garden. I bought it, brought it home, dug a deep narrow hole, and buried the whole thick root in my spring garden soil. Boy, did it grow! Big, lush green foliage sprung up during the hot summer, first from the original root, then from the soil around the root. A little internet research told me that horseradish plants can be very invasive - oh no, I don't need a whole garden of horseradish! At the end of that first summer, I dug up the original plant and all the little baby plants it had sprouted. I replanted most of it, in an area I call my "excess" garden, where I allow invasive plants room to grow unrestricted (like mint). I kept some little roots, chopping fine and using with beef dishes. This was one potent horseradish!

I must add that I continued to pull up little horseradish volunteers in the vegetable garden during this past spring and summer. It wasn't hard to identify them - just break off a leaf and give it a whiff! The leaves are edible, by the way, and make a tasty addition to a salad, or an interesting flavor note in a stir-fry. By July, I stopped seeing any more horseradish greens, so I had cleared out all the invasive roots. In the excess garden where I had transplanted the horseradish the previous fall, the plants again grew vigorously. My November garden post pictures some roots I harvested this fall: horseradish, jerusalem artichokes, and beets.

Now, what to do with the horseradish roots? It wasn't difficult to find directions online for making my own prepared horseradish. I was warned by a friend that I should grind the roots outdoors, due to the very pungent horseradish "fumes" which would be released. If you are a fan of horseradish, you know the taste and smell will rush into your sinuses - a very different "hot" than with hot peppers. I had dug up several large pieces of root plus some long 1/2 inch diameter pieces, and I scrubbed them with a veggie brush, revealing beautiful white roots. It was good that I had harvested a sizable amount, since my Vitamix blender chops best when there is at least a cup of food in the container. (I reserved some horseradish chopped as thin slivers, to air-dehydrate and grind it into a powder, which worked out very well also). I read that freshly grated horseradish root can turn brown as it oxidizes, so I didn't cut it up until I was ready to use it.

So out to the porch table I went, ground the horseradish to a fine chop in the Vitamix - do not inhale when you open the lid! I added a touch of salt, then added a small amount of lemon juice (to keep it from discoloring) and vinegar. One recipe I read calls for 1/4 to 1/3 c vinegar, 1/2 to 1 tsp salt, and 2 cups of freshly grated horseradish. I wasn't so precise in my measurements; I watched the consistency as I blended, adding only as much liquid as needed to make it into a thick paste.

Viola! Extra-potent homemade horseradish! I made enough to fill 3 small jars, refrigerated one for immediate use, and froze two for future enjoyment. Cooking destroys the mustard oils which give horseradish its heat, so it's best to use uncooked, or add last to cooked dishes. Horseradish is traditional with roast beef, great with potato dishes, a good addition to sandwiches, and yummy in deviled eggs. Ask for a taste if you visit!


December in the Veggie Garden

Wild chickweed, edible and tasty, raw or cooked

My December garden doesn't look too much different from November. Our weather continues to be relatively mild with regular precipitation, so the winter vegetables are growing well. I was surprised and delighted to discover some "wild" greens I foraged last spring are lush and green again now. I confirmed the identity of Chickweed with my fellow foraging friend Judy; it's a mildly flavored, very nourishing plant, and can be used in a salad, in a green smoothie, or cooked lightly. It is growing in abundance in the rich soil outside my compost bin, and I am harvesting it to use almost daily.

From the garden, I've been picking romaine and leaf lettuce continually for salads, lots of beet greens (and beet "reds") to use raw and cooked, scallions from the onion bed, and tiny spinach leaves. I've twice harvested enough brussels sprouts for a meal. I lightly sauteed them with onions and they were delicious! As a first-time collard grower, I am waiting to see if the plants grow replacements where I've picked the Barbie-size cabbage heads at the intersections of the leaf with the main stem. I've also loved my collards. One morning I found them covered with beautiful lacy patterns of frost and figured they'd been killed. By afternoon the air was warm and they looked as healthy as ever, so their season continues. My "straw" mulch on the strawberry plants has proven to be a mistake; it's hay with seeds in it, so green grass is starting to grow everywhere - I'll be removing the straw and weeding soon!

I've also got a few things growing in the cold frame, which I keep closed unless the day is sunny and/or above 50 degrees. The flat leaf parsley in the cold frame is growing well, and the other seedlings I planted there are healthy although slow growing: romaine, spinach, red beets, leaf lettuce. The celeriac seedlings are still as tiny as they were months ago; I don't know what went wrong there.

Self-seeded cilantro, growing among larkspur and weeds!
I extended the growing season on some of my herbs by potting them in the fall and growing them by my south-facing basement window, where the temperature is usually 50-60 degrees. The lemon grass is growing tall and strong, so I'll be able to replant it outdoors in spring if the clumps I grew last year don't survive outside. I also have a pot of basil, which is a warm-weather annual. I have little pots of cilantro and mint also, but I am still able to harvest those from the outdoor gardens, along with lemon balm, parsley, rosemary, chives, sage, thyme, and fennel… yum! I planted a cilantro bed in the garden, but I also let it grow where it can go to seed (harvested as coriander) and replant itself, which it does very well. This time of year I also grow sprouts in the kitchen, for additional fresh harvests. I most often grow a mix of alfalfa, broccoli, and red clover sprouting seeds.

For those interested in learning more about cold weather gardening, I recommend the book The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman (fourseasonfarm.com). This man, with partner Barbara Damrosch, makes his living selling produce, year round - in Maine! He uses hot houses, cold houses, row covers, specially chosen varieties, and other means. The book is easy to read, very informative, and has a list of good resources. The successes and failures of his many years in business can be boiled down to methods a home gardener can employ.

If you are considering gardening for the first time, All New Square Foot Garden, by Mel Bartholomew (squarefootgardening.com), gives fabulous step by step instructions. The theory, based on growing in small, manageable raised beds, is helpful to experienced gardeners too. I've watched novice gardeners fail when, in their excitement, they plant a huge garden, only to discover they can't keep up with the work. They end up discouraged, with little to show for all their initial effort. This book helps you start small and enjoy success.

This time of year, gardeners like me start thinking about year's garden, especially when seed catalogs arrive in the mail. Somehow I got on the mailing list and received the most beautiful seed catalog I had ever seen last year. It's from Baker's Creek Heirloom Seeds. You can request it free and can view the entire catalog online: rareseeds.com. What amazed me were all the vegetables and fruits which I never even knew existed! This company has collected heirloom seeds from all over the world, with many interesting stories about the sources. There's page after page of tomato varieties, in all different colors, sizes, and shapes. There are squashes with colorful spots and bumpy textures on their skin. There are beans with "wings". Seeds from Iran, Thailand, former Soviet countries, and all over the USA. I love going through the catalog, over and over. Next month I'll report on new seeds I plan to grow in 2012.

'Hope you'll be enjoying home grown squashes and sweet potatoes as part of your holiday meals!