My family has been growing and marketing fresh horseradish for generations. So when an old friend complained that the horseradish in the stores wasn’t hot enough for him, we gave him some of our own product. His wife later described his reaction to the first bite:
“Whoo, that’s good!” — red-faced, eyes watering, smoke practically blowing out his ears.
Horseradish is a long, fleshy root, which most sources kindly describe as “pungent.” Anyone who’s cleared their sinuses with a whiff will agree. Horseradish is one of those foods we use to heat life up a little bit. It’s native to Central Europe, and has a long history of use, both culinary and medicinal. Like potatoes, horseradish is grown not from seed, but from a piece of last year’s root. Here in Virginia, we plant in May, and harvest the following winter.
A fresh stick of horseradish isn’t very prepossessing. It’s off-white in color, has a fist-shaped head and a thick, straight tail. An average root is some twelve inches long and weighs around one and a quarter pounds. Even after they’ve been trimmed and washed, horseradish roots have a rough, barky appearance. This roughness equals hardiness, though; when refrigerated, an unpeeled stick will retain its flavor just fine for months.
Horseradish’s claim to fame becomes apparent the minute you cut into it. Be prepared for watering eyes, although horseradish doesn’t irritate the skin the way some chilies do. Here’s the simplest method I’ve found for preparing fresh horseradish: Peel the root and cut it into one- or two-inch chunks. Place these in a blender or food processor, add white vinegar until they’re barely covered, and then blend until the consistency is as coarse or fine as you like it. Horseradish prepared this way can be used just as it is, or mixed with other ingredients – cream, mayonnaise, sour cream – to make a variety of sauces. Tightly sealed and refrigerated, it’ll last for several weeks, but its potency will diminish the longer it’s kept.
I’ll admit I’m a snob when it comes to fresh horseradish versus the bottled stuff. But processed horseradish can certainly be used in any recipe, though you may want to step up the amount. Dried ground horseradish is another alternative. This has to be reconstituted by soaking it in water; the general rule is 1 tablespoon of dried horseradish equals 2 tablespoons prepared.
Horseradish traditionally accompanies beef. It also goes well with pork and other heavy meats, either hot or cold. It’s superb with seafood, good in a potato salad or a slaw, and makes excellent dipping sauces for raw vegetables. Try adding it to your meatloaf ingredients, or topping baked potatoes with it. Some cooks like to grind a raw beet in with the horseradish, to give it a nice ruby-red color, but be warned: this may get mistaken for cranberry sauce.
What I like best about horseradish is the fact that its bite doesn’t linger. Chilies can leave you burning for days, but the blast from horseradish fades fairly quickly, leaving your tongue ready for another mouthful. The heat doesn’t overpower horseradish’s natural sweetness, either.
Horseradish is sometimes used as the bitter herb (Exodus 12:8) of the Jewish Passover. As part of the Passover meal, horseradish is not just a condiment; it’s a symbol of the captivity in Egypt, of the bitterness we sometimes face today, of obedience to God’s word, and the promise of God’s deliverance, in the past and the future. That’s a pretty big job for such a humble root! Think of this, the next time you dish up a serving of horseradish. And remember the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise – Jesus.
Jessica Van Dessel
Christian writer and farmer