Horseradish & Wasabi

These innocent-looking roots pack a potent punch in both their natural and processed forms.Few ingredients have the ability to fire up a dish quite like horseradish and wasabi. Although this dynamic duo may evoke conflicting allusions to cuisine and heritage, the two share a similar lineage. Both roots are members of the cruciferae family, which also includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.

Wasabi, which was first cultivated in the 10th century, is a perennial vegetable typically grown in fields or in cold mountain streams. Native to Japan, sawa or semi-aquatic wasabi, is higher in price and quality than the field-grown oka variety. Although daruma is the most popular type of wasabi, the mazuma variety is the hotter of the two. Most of the higher quality wasabi is grown in Japan, but New Zealand and the U.S. produce small crops, too.

Horseradish, also a perennial, was first grown in Egypt in 1500 B.C. and slowly made its way across central Europe to the U.S. The Germans called the root meerrettich, or sea radish, because of its tendency to grow near water. By 1640 A.D., English peasants were consuming horseradish, and by the late 1600s, it gained popularity among the aristocracy, who enjoyed the way it complemented their beef and oysters. Commercial cultivation of horseradish started in the mid-1850s in America, and has since expanded to about 3,000 acres. The plant was formerly known as "stingnose" in some parts of the country.

Traditionally, wasabi accompanies sushi and horseradish, a roast beef sandwich. But both are versatile enough to enhance a range of foods, including salmon, ham, potatoes, shrimp cocktail, dips, salad dressing, and bloody Marys. What's more, horseradish has just 2 calories per tsp., is low in sodium, and provides dietary fiber; wasabi is thought to contain cancer-fighting agents and may help prevent food poisoning.

The preparation of wasabi and horseradish is almost as similar as their backgrounds. It is recommended that a sharkskin or orosh grater be used for the grinding of wasabi root, but a more common ceramic or stainless-steel grater can be used instead. The smaller and finer the teeth, the better. Almost any fine grater can be used for horseradish.

First, rinse the vegetable and scrape off any blemishes, then scrub with a stiff brush. Next, cut just below the leaf base and check to see if the inner color is consistent. Wasabi should be grated in a circular motion, while a criss-cross motion is suggested for horseradish. Adding vinegar to grated horseradish stops the enzymatic action and prevents discoloration. Prepared or bottled white horseradish is a blend of the grated root and vinegar; red horseradish is bottled in beet juice.

Once grated, both wasabi and horseradish lose their pungency, so they shouldn't be prepared more than 20 min. before being added to a recipe. Since they also have a tendency to lose potency when heated, it is best to add them near the end of the cooking time.

Store fresh roots away from light in the refrigerator. They will keep for about one month, wrapped in moist paper towels and placed inside a plastic bag. Horseradish roots can also be frozen for several months.

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