Horseradish: the spicy root of spring

Peter Danowski

I go dig up the horseradish

its long bitter spear of harshness

reminds me of the taste of spring

always a slight aftertaste from the year before

the resentful winter and the cold

if you mix it in, just so –

it is zippy and bright

but relentless

too much

and it drags you

to the depths of regret

not enough?

you forget what was there.

excerpted from “Horseradish” by Odarka Stockert

Horseradish root is not a spring vegetable that we give much thought to or buy in any quantity, if at all. But it is a harbinger of spring and has an unmistakable flavor that is easily recognized by all and enjoyed by many. For the past 30 years one man, Peter Danowski, has popularized the use of fresh horseradish by throwing an annual horseradish party on the Wednesday before Easter in Riverhead. He and his wife, Sue, along with the help of many volunteers, prepare large quantities of horseradish for friends and acquaintances to take home. Adding to the festivities are oysters and clams on the half-shell, homemade chili, char-grilled kielbasa, homemade desserts and local wine. When asked what is the purpose of this very popular party, the Danowskis will say it is a gift to their many local friends and a celebration of horseradish. It is one of the most enjoyable events on the North Fork.

There are great rewards for making horseradish sauces from scratch rather than relying on processed versions. When the horseradish root, a member of the mustard family, is peeled and shredded the root cells are crushed, releasing powerful volatile oils known as isothiocyanates. These are what “clear your sinuses” and bring tears to your eyes. Adding vinegar stabilizes the reaction and preserves the horseradish. But over time the flavor is weakened and the “zing” is lost.

Making your own horseradish for use in sauces and other recipes is very easy. Just purchase one root, peel it and cut it into half-inch chunks. Pulse these in your food processor until the chunks are finely chopped and add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of white vinegar or a combination of vinegar and lemon juice. Cover tightly and keep refrigerated for up to three weeks without losing much flavor. Here are some uses for horseradish:

Horseradish, Beet and Red Onion Relish

Trim the tops off a bunch of beets. Cook in boiling salted water until tender, about 30 minutes. Cool, peel and dice into quarter-inch pieces. Peel and dice one large red onion and add to the beets. Stir in 1/2 cup fresh prepared horseradish (see above). Combine 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar with 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Whisk in 1/2 cup olive oil and add to beet mixture. Chill two hours or longer and serve with char-grilled hanger steak, flank steak or skirt steak.

Horseradish-Crusted Salmon Fillets

Dust 4 salmon fillets in seasoned flour and set aside. Mix 2 tablespoons prepared fresh horseradish (see above) with one egg and 2 tablespoons cream. Dredge the fish in this mixture and coat with panko crumbs. Prepare a sauce by bringing to a boil 2/3 cup heavy cream and letting it reduce to 1/2 cup. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon horseradish, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Heat a large sautà pan and add 1/4 cup canola oil. Sautà the salmon fillets on each side until golden, about 5 minutes total time.

Serve the fish on a bed of wilted spinach with the sauce on the side.

Roast Pork with Garlic and Horseradish Crust

Purchase a center-cut boneless pork loin, about 4 pounds Separate 2 heads of garlic into cloves, leaving them unpeeled. Toss the garlic cloves with 1/4 cup olive oil and place in a small baking dish. Cover with foil and roast in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove and cool. Squeeze the garlic cloves out of their skins into a small bowl. Mix with 1/2 cup fresh horseradish (see above) and 1 teaspoon coarse salt. Rub this mixture over the pork loin and place on a rack in a small roasting pan. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours or longer. Roast on the rack in a 350-degree oven about 2 hours or until internal temperature is 155 degrees. Remove and let stand for 20 minutes. Deglaze pan to make a pan gravy if desired.

Serves 6.

Smashed Potatoes with Celery Root and Horseradish

Trim 6 small red-skinned potatoes of any blemishes, without peeling, and one medium-sized celery root. Cut into quarters and set aside. Peel the celery root and cut into 1-inch chunks. Add the potatoes and celery root to boiling salted water and cook until just tender, about 25 minutes. Drain and coarsely mash with a potato masher. Stir in 1 teaspoon coarse salt, 1 teaspoon ground pepper and 1/4 cup freshly grated horseradish (or prepared as above). Add 2 tablespoons butter and 3 chopped scallions if desired.

Serves 4 to 6.

The Ultimate Shrimp Cocktail

Prepare a cocktail sauce by combining 1/2 cup catsup with 1/2 cup chili sauce. Add to this 1/4 cup of finely shredded horseradish (or prepared as above), 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and a dash each of coarse salt and Tabasco. Peel and de-vein 2 pounds of jumbo shrimp (about 16-20 per pound), saving the shells but leaving the tail on. Place 2 quarts of cold water in a large saucepan and add 1 tablespoon pickling spice, 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and the reserved shrimp shells. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain this liquid into another pan and bring to a second boil. Add the peeled shrimp and bring to a boil. Do not overcook. Drain and cool under cold water.

Shred iceberg lettuce and place in the bottom of stemmed cocktail dishes. Place cocktail sauce in the middle and hang the shrimp around the sides.

Serves 6 to 8 people.

The Ultimate Bloody Mary

Combine 2 cups tomato juice with 2 cups V8 juice. Stir in 2 tablespoons fresh prepared horseradish (see above), 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon A-1 sauce and 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce. Season with 1/2 teaspoon celery salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Add desired amount of vodka and garnish the glasses with lemon wedges, lime wedges and stuffed olives. Cheers!

Serves 4 to 6.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].