THE PLEASURE–AND PAIN–OF HORSERADISH

It’s been 45 years since I watched my grandfather dig the long, dirty, gnarled horseradish roots out of his garden with a sharp spade, lunging at the ground with all of his strength to cut through the thick fibers of the plant.
After harvesting a large piece, he would wash the dirt from it and then peel it, leaving behind a beautifully smooth white root.
He had a large bowl set under a grater, and he would hand grate the horseradish root with incredible speed. But no matter how fast he went, the potent vapors released by the root would make their way to his eyes, and he was forced to stop several times to wipe the tears away with his old handkerchief and regain his composure before returning to grate the root again.
Onions were child’s play compared to horseradish, and I understood why he did all the preparation just outside of the kitchen door of his Queens, NY home.
Once grated, he would add some water, vinegar, and salt, and his prepared horseradish was complete. He’d store it in tightly sealed glass jars in the fridge, and when it was time to sample the goods, he would carefully open a jar, poke his knife in, and spread the prepared horseradish over beef, beets, twice-smoked bacon, or anything else he desired.
I’d watch his face slowly turn red, small beads of perspiration developing on his forehead, and he’d turn and smile at me and tell me: “Labai skanu!” (Very tasty!)

At the age of 10, I couldn’t figure out what he saw in horseradish, but it didn’t take long before I was hooked myself, as it was a staple at any Lithuanian dinner table.

Opting for the stuff that came in a jar in the supermarket, I never made my own prepared horseradish, however, until just last week, a full 45 years later.

I’ve had a huge horseradish plant growing in my garden for years, and I just never got around to doing anything with it. But the other night, as I was preparing my cocktail sauce recipe and I realized that I was out of prepared horseradish, it became clear that the time of reckoning had arrived. It was time, in the finest tradition of my grandfather, to make my own prepared horseradish.

Freshly harvested horseradish roots

Freshly harvested horseradish roots

I went out to the yard with a sharp shovel and lunged at the horseradish plant, splitting a few roots off of the main crown. I pulled them out of the ground, detached the long leaves, and headed back to the kitchen.
Today’s kitchen technology gave me a distinct advantage over my grandfather, and after washing and peeling the root, I chopped it into smaller pieces and tossed them into a food processor. No hand grating necessary!
The processor pulverized the root in no time, and I added water, vinegar and salt as my grandfather did, being very careful not to stick my face too close to the opening of the processor where the vapors were their most powerful.
A small taste on my tongue just about had my eyeballs shoot out of my head, and I muttered silently to myself: “Labai skanu!”

My grandfather would be proud.

Horseradish is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which includes mustard, cabbage, wasabi, and broccoli. The horseradish root itself hardly has any aroma. But when you crush it, enzymes from the broken plant cells produce mustard oil, which irritates the mucous membranes of the sinuses and eyes. To keep the horseradish from losing its pungency and freshness, vinegar must be added immediately.

Prepared Horseradish

Ingredients:

6 oz fresh horseradish root, peeled
6 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons white vinegar
3 pinches of salt

Chop the horseradish root into small pieces and add water, vinegar and salt. Process until proper consistency is reached.
Careful! Use proper ventilation or the vapors will blow your eyeballs and sinuses out!

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