Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ingredient: HORSERADISH

Growing up, I thought that horseradish was just the spicy white thing you mixed into cocktail sauce and dabbed on oysters. I spent a lot of time in New England, so sue me. But luckily I didn’t even have to wait until I discovered bloody mary’s to appreciate the horseradish; I simply went to high school in Brooklyn.

I was very much in the dark, because in fact horseradish has been a celebrated plant for its culinary and medicinal uses since Roman times. The plant has diuretic and anti-bacterial properties. Pliny the Elder and the Oracle at Delphi wrote about the stuff, and later William Turner and Shakespeare did as well. Horseradish is a member of the mustard family (an odd-ball cousin of more common plants like broccoli and cauliflower, for sure, though wasabi may be the real black sheep of the line). This perennial plant actually produces a lovely white flower, though we generally cultivate it for its gnarly root. As you might guess, horseradish is pretty aggressive. Gardening guides warn; “Horseradish is considered invasive. It will spread quickly throughout the garden if not carefully controlled.” This rule applies to its use in your food. Once you cut or grate the horseradish root, it releases a mustard oil which is spicy, hot, and about to get out of control if you don’t stabilize it with vinegar. But once stabilized, or “prepared” as all marketed horseradish products invariably are, this root produces a fiery, intense flavor that I love. Why did it take me so long to find this condiment? It is because Collinsville, Illinois produces sixty percent of the world’s horseradish (thanks to a soil rich in potash, a nutrient on which the plant thrives)? No, because New York has to consume a sizable chunk of that crop. As I said, it was a matter of geography.

Until high school, I went to an Episcopalian school which was completely wonderful but horseradish free. Then, in a religious one-eighty, I ended up at a school in Brooklyn were most of the matriculating students were Jewish. It was, well, a God send. I love Jewish food. I can down bagels at break-fast with the best of them. Charoses? Challah? Bring it on. Matzo ball soup? I’m not waiting for Elijah to dig into a bowl. At Seder, I was the only person under 40, Jew or goyum, who liked Gefilte fish. (I still do and am available for rental at Seder to impress your grandmother). Horseradish is one of the marror, or the bitter herbs, at Passover, but also just as a condiment at your local deli. That is how I was led to horseradish mustard, a condiment to shame all other condiments.

My horseradish revelatory experience number two came in another unexpected place; the theater district. You see, the sad truth is that New Yorkers rarely go to “Broadway” and when out-of-towners ask me what show to go see, I may, sometimes, laugh in their faces. But not only did I find myself on my way to see a piece of musical theater, but I had been coerced into eating dinner in the area beforehand. Dark thoughts of Applebees and overpriced theme diners took over. Instead, I was led to a street somewhere in the 40s and past the real avenues (read: west of 8th). There was a shady door. There was an even shadier entrance way to a dimly lit restaurant with red walls and a shocking display of crushed velvet. There was a TINY MAN PLAYING A PIANO. You can’t make this stuff up. And then there were the Russian gangsters. Tables of them. It seemed that every table except ours was a table for two, and not just any two people, but row after row of large, sweaty men in suits sitting across from women who were clearly not their wives. As might be expected, the food was not good. Borsht is not an aphrodisiac my friends. Finally we followed the lead of our fellow diners and ordered the house infused vodkas. My favorite was the horseradish vodka, a preparation that has to my delight spread with the current mixology craze. What did I learn that night? Horseradish will perk up your doughiest pirogi, it can mask the taste of overcooked vegs. It can even give a notoriously tasteless substance (vodka) the taste of the gods. It’s a genius ingredient and a great source of vitamin C (well, that last part I learned later.) So grab a bottle and go to town, no matter what part of town you're in.

Potato Salad with Smoked Salmon and Horseradish Crème Fraiche
Adapted from Jaime Oliver

This dish is an assembly of many of my favorite things: smoked salmon, dill potatoes, and a lemon caper vinaigrette. Yet what makes it more than just a plate of things I like, what draws it all together into a cohesive and layered dish, is the horseradish crème fraiche.

Note: I am making this again tonight, but with freshly grilled salmon in place of smoked, to make it a little more hearty for dinner. This is both a testament to how good the dish is, how versatile, and how much horseradish you get from one freaking root.

Serves four


1 pound new potatoes, cleaned
1 large lemon, zested and juiced
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp capers, drained
1 x 1 inch piece of fresh horseradish, peeled and grated, or a few Tbsp grated horseradish from a jar
¾ cup crème fraiche
A handful of dill, chopped
14 ounces smoked salmon


First, make sure your potatoes are all about the same size, so if there are larger ones in the bunch, cut them in half. Put the potatoes in a pot of salted, boiling water, and cook for about 7-10 minutes. Note: my potatoes took seven minutes, but they were teeny. You’ll know yours are done when you can piece them with a fork. Drain potatoes in a colander.

Put the lemon zest and half of the juice from the lemon into a bowl. Add the vinegar and the olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Mix with a fork to emulsify.

Put the dressing over the potatoes and toss to coat.

Grate the horseradish into a bowl. Mix in the crème fraiche, the rest of the lemon juice, and a wee bit of salt and pepper.

Now you get to make it look pretty. I laid my salmon out on to a plate, lumped the potatoes in the middle, then sprinkled the dish with the capers and the dill. Finally I dolloped the crème fraiche here and there, so that I’d get a nice bit in every bite. Honestly though, this dish is very laid back, and perfect for lunch, so assemble it as you will.

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