Four Condiments to Grow and Prepare at Home
Add a new dimension to your home-cooked meals by growing your own condiments.Posted May 30, 2016
The ancient Romans had fish sauce. The Medieval English had mustard. In the sixteenth century, pesto began gracing the tables of Italians and is still a favorite today (who doesn’t swoon over fresh basil?).
Humans have long had a love of condiments, those seasonings and spices added to our meals to increase flavor and enhance our eating experience; but have you ever thought of growing condiment ingredients in your home garden? With just a little bit of space, water, and sunshine, you can grow ingredients to enhance your meals and improve your soil. Here are some favorites.
Grown since ancient times for food and medicine, mustard first appears in Indian and Sumerian historical writings approximately 3000 B.C. Commonly consumed by ancient Romans, the plant’s use spread across conquered nations until it became a staple in Medieval Europe. Today’s mustard is grown commercially in temperate locations such as Britain, the U.S., and Canada and thrives in a variety of climates and soils despite its Mediterranean origins.
One of the easiest plants to grow, white mustard (Sinapis alba) produces the mildly pungent seeds commonly blended with vinegar and other spices in the ubiquitous yellow mustard seen in diners across North America. Farmers use this same plant as a cover crop to control weeds and harmful pests and diseases such as verticillium, root rot, and soil nematodes.
To grow mustard for its seed, plant in spring when lengthening days will trigger early blossoms. As the weather heats up and the plant sets seed, seedpods will begin to bulge. Harvest stems before the pods split, showering your garden with a new crop. Place the tops of the plants in a paper bag and hang or set to dry in a cool, dark place. If timed right, the pods will shrink and open, expelling their seeds into the bag. This technique makes your harvest fast and easy. Store in a sealed jar or spice container and prepare as needed.
When the time comes to prepare the fresh mustard, soak several tablespoons of your seeds overnight in water. The following day, grind to a coarse paste and add vinegar, olive oil, and your favorite spices to taste. A touch of honey also complements mustard’s flavor. You can also toast mustard seeds in a frying pan and use as a garnish on salads or as an addition to curries and salsas.
Prized for its pungent flavor and aroma, horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is another plant with a long history of consumption for medicinal and culinary use. According to Greek mythology, the oracle at Delphi told Apollo that horseradish was “worth its weight in gold.” Ancient Egyptians must have agreed, since they had consumed the plant long before this otherworldly gossip reached the Greek god’s sacred ears.
First bottled and marketed as a condiment in 1860, prepared horseradish is another member of the brassica family (like white mustard above), which may account for its heat. Horseradish, however, forms a long, fleshy root, which can spread prolifically and overrun gardens. To minimize its reach, isolate the plant in a deep container or raised bed and harvest after one or two growing seasons. When planting from divided roots or root sections (the most common form of propagation), remove side shoots to encourage the plant to form a terminal root. When the plant flowers, remove the blossoms to prevent reseeding.
To ensure the best flavor possible, harvest horseradish in the fall, winter, or early spring when cold temperatures have worked their magic on its roots, increasing their pungency. Store unpeeled roots in the fridge for one to two months.
When preparing your horseradish, begin by mixing up a brine of vinegar, water, sugar, and salt and placing next to your work area. Next, peel the roots in preparation for grating. Grating horseradish activates the volatile oils in the roots and vinegar counteracts this effect. If you want mild horseradish, add grated root to the brine right away. For stronger horseradish, allow the grated root to sit for two to three minutes before soaking in brine.
As you grate the horseradish, be prepared to experience those volatile oils yourself—some people prefer to prepare horseradish outdoors or in an area near an open window. Others with sensitive skin like to wear gloves. Whatever the case, home -prepared horseradish will keep in the fridge for up to six weeks or in the freezer for up to six months. Add to sauces, dips, mustards, and more for instant heat and dynamite flavor.
In her Old Fashioned Recipe Book, homesteading icon Carla Emery calls ketchup, “all the great, thickened, spicy sauces that may or may not have had tomatoes in them!” According to the Oxford Dictionary of Food and Nutrition, the word “ketchup” comes from the Chinese koechap or kitsiap, which referred to a brine of pickled fish. Whatever the case, the first known tomato ketchup recipe was published in 1812 by Canadian James Mease, and the rest is history. Now tomatoes are synonymous with ketchup—in fact most tomato consumption in North America today comes in the form of ketchup.
The first thing to remember if you want to grow tomatoes for condiments is that not all tomatoes are created equal. Those large, juicy beefsteak varieties commonly sliced into sandwiches will swim in bland, watery liquid when reduced into sauces and pastes. In contrast, the relatively tasteless Roma or Italian plum tomato (and its relatives) is densely packed with dark red flesh; it is also virtually seedless, which makes it an excellent candidate for ketchup. Check your local nurseries and seed catalogues for varieties suited to your areas. Favorites include Roma VF, Amish Paste, Italian Paste, and Big Mama.
After harvesting your tomatoes, wash well and immerse in boiling water to loosen the skins. Follow this with a bath of cold water before peeling. Jamie Oliver has a fabulous tomato ketchup recipe, but if you’re a purist (no fennel bulbs or ginger for you), puree your tomatoes with onions, allspice, cloves, cider vinegar, salt, and sugar to taste. Tomato ketchup will hold in the fridge for several weeks, or you can process according to the directions provided by your canning jar manufacturer.
Garlic has a special place in our garden for several reasons. First, the bulbous root grows underground during the winter and spring, when our garden beds are largely vacant and moisture from overhead rains is naturally abundant. Second, the plant is easy to grow, with minimal inputs required. Lastly, in our neck of the woods, garlic is extremely expensive. Hauling fifty or more bulbs from the soil each year saves a substantial amount in grocery bills. Garlic’s medicinal properties are another boon, ranging from anti-viral and anti-bacterial, to excellent ingredients for poultices, cough syrups, and more.
But how can you preserve that delicious freshness all the yearlong? In most cases, you don’t have to: properly cured garlic keeps quite well for three to six months, depending on the storage conditions and varieties grown, so preserving isn’t always necessary. Our local hard-neck varieties keep even longer, so we rarely do anything after the initial hardening off in dry weather. Despite this, I still like to have a jar of garlic paste handy in the fridge for quick additions to salad dressings, dips, and marinades. There is something to be said for convenience.
Preparing garlic paste is simple: begin by crushing each clove with the side of a large kitchen knife to loosen and remove the skins. Next, slice each clove thinly, chopping repeatedly until minced. A sprinkle of salt on top of your minced garlic and more chopping and smashing with your kitchen knife will further break down the cloves into a fine paste. Use immediately, or transfer the result into a small jar and cover with vinegar for longer storage.
It may seem time-consuming and unnecessary to make your own condiments when they are readily available on store shelves, but like so many aspects of gardening, it is rewarding to provide for yourself, it is interesting to learn natural processes, and most gratifying to share the results with family and friends.
Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.