Friday, March 15, 2013

“To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish” (Yiddish Proverb)


As a child, I had one association with horseradish. Passover. On the seder plate it was called maror—Hebrew for “bitter herb”—but my parents tended to call it by its Yiddish name of chrain. Although it was supposed to remind us of the bitterness of years of slavery in Egypt, I was always partial to horseradish. Not the prepared stuff you buy in tiny little jars, but the freshly grated variety, moistened with vinegar and seasoned with a bit of salt. Today you can find horseradish root at the supermarket just about anytime, but back then it was stocked once a year, a few weeks before Passover. As soon as I saw a chunk of the deceptively odorless root in the refrigerator, I knew what to expect. My father’s annual ritual of horseradish preparation. 

Come the weekend before Passover, he’d get to work, peeling the root, chopping it into manageable pieces, and tossing it into the food processor with some vinegar and a pinch of salt (no doubt he also added a few spoonfuls of sugar). A few seconds of pulsing was all it took. But the drama of the ritual lay in the opening of the food processor. As I recall, he would don a surgical mask for the moment of truth, because the fumes that wafted out of that processor would otherwise have knocked him out. Try it. You’ll see. 

Horseradish doesn’t have a smell when it’s whole. When it’s been cut, however, it releases the same compound that’s responsible for the sinus-blasting and eye-popping pungency of wasabi and mustard, to both of which it's related (and which, not coincidentally, are two of my other favorite flavors).  That mucous membrane-irritating compound has a purpose other than that of adding savor to my dinner or serving as a symbol of bitterness; it protects the plant from the chomping teeth of an unsuspecting herbivore—like a horse, for instance, after whom the horseradish is not in fact named and to whom it’s positively poisonous. “Horse” used to mean “strong, large, or coarse,” as in horse chestnuts or a horse laugh (not “hoarse laugh” as I always thought, but “horse laugh”).

Now if a knife can break enough cell walls to release the acrid compound, just imagine the potential of the whirring blade of the food processor. And if the odor is sharp enough when the root is being cut or grated on a chopping board on the countertop in a well ventilated kitchen, just imagine the ferocity of the pent up odors when they’re suddenly released en masse. Most recipes I’ve read merely advise you to avert your face when you remove the lid of the processor; my father, more cautious still, resorted to desperate measures.

Some of the horseradish he’d put in glass jars; to the rest he’d add some boiled beets (or were they pickled beets?) for a touch of sweetness. But for me, only the white stuff would do. For me, gefilte fish was incomplete without it, as was the brisket, the charoset, and the matzah. Without horseradish, the meal lacked savor. To me, it was horseradish that defined Passover.

But I’ve since found out that Passover isn’t alone in claiming the root or in bestowing its nose-clearing pungency with symbolic resonance. In much of Northern Europe, a traditional Easter dish is Horseradish Soup, called Bialy Barszcz in Poland. Rich with sour cream and kielbasa, the soup is spiked with a hefty amount of grated horseradish—symbolizing Jesus's sacrifice—and traditionally served with hard-boiled eggs, symbolizing his rebirth.

Slavery in Egypt or Jesus’s sacrifice. A lot of symbolic weight to put on the shoulders of a root that’s simply trying to protect itself from being eaten by a grazing herbivore. Or by me.

Whether it's Easter or Passover you're celebrating, here's how to prepare your own horseradish. For every pound of horseradish root, you'll need about a half cup of white vinegar and a teaspoon and a half of salt. Peel & coarsely chop the horseradish. Place it in the food processor with a few tablespoons of the vinegar. Pulse until the horseradish has broken down. Add the salt and enough of the remaining vinegar to get a pasty consistency. If you must, you can add a few teaspoons of sugar or a peeled medium (uncooked) beet. Purist that I am, I add neither.

Addendum: After having spoken with my parents (two of my closest readers), I have two corrections to make. First, it was my mother—not my father—who peeled and chopped the horseradish, in addition to making the chicken soup, matzah balls, gefilte fish, brisket, and virtually everything else (no doubt, she'll want me to credit the guests who bring the kugels and desserts, but blog posts—like Academy Award acceptance speeches—have to know when to call it quits).  Second, my father alerts any of you tempted to try making your own horseradish that the surgical mask alone is not sufficient to protect you against the fiery fumes that will emerge when you twist off the top of the food processor. In addition to the mask, he advises goggles.