Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Horse Is A Horse

Have you tried fresh horseradish, the gnarly, spicy, slightly bitter root pictured above? Few people ever see fresh horseradish unless they're in the habit of serving it for Passover, a holiday that coincides perfectly with the root's arrival in supermarkets and farm stands (it's actually far from coincidental since it's often served as a "bitter herb" at Seders and as a traditional garnish for gefilte fish). If, like me, you've ever struck up a conversation with your local produce manager, you'll find they know a lot about traditional holiday foods. When I couldn't find celery root a few months ago for a winter vegetable shoot, I berated my local produce manager for not stocking enough local winter veggies. He immediately informed me that because demand for it is so much higher around the high holy Jewish holidays, many farmers don't even bother planting it or shipping it until later in the season when they know people will buy it (oops, my bad--sorry Tom).

Horseradish faces a similar fate, generally popping up for public consumption about a week or two before Passover. While it has a distinctive spicy bite thanks to its relation to the mustard family, fresh horseradish has a particular flavor component that's lost in the jarred variety. Slightly bright with a lemony freshness reminiscent of ginger root, fresh horseradish is surprisingly light and refreshing when grated straight from the root. It doesn't have that faint garlic flavor and pickling liquid that plagues packaged horseradish, and of course has no preservatives or salt content. If you like Bloody Mary's you'll go nuts for the ones made with fresh horseradish, and if you like horseradish cream on your lamb or roast beef, you're definitely in luck. It has a clean flavor that meshes well with sour cream or creme fraƮche (my favorite bases for a horseradish cream), and is just divine when paired with citrus. Much like dried herbs versus fresh, you'll need way more of the fresh stuff than the bottled business, which has a stronger flavor due to additives and the fact that it's steeped in liquid.

There are a myriad uses for it, whether it's replacing ginger in a dish where you want a little spicy kick or using it instead of a hot sauce or cayenne pepper. I like adding it to mashed potatoes or even a parsnip puree, both of which pair well with a great steak or chop (especially if you've already busted out the grill). My recent favorite use of fresh horseradish is for a horseradish cream, which I start making a lot more often around this time of year as I start looking towards cooking spring lamb. I don't know if it's because I'm used to eating it around Easter or what, but for some reason lamb starts to make itself present in my culinary repertoire once the whether turns warm. I like to make an amalgam of a traditional horseradish cream and a tzatziki sauce by combining delicious fresh herbs like dill and mint with some fresh lemon juice and zest. I prefer to use a low-fat sour cream or strained Greek yogurt for the base (sometimes I actually use both), which makes it nice and healthy, in addition to using cornichons or chopped pickles instead of cucumber for a little extra crunch and kick. With a heavy dose of freshly cracked black pepper it's ready to go, and can do more than just top your spring lamb. It can accompany a roast beef, brighten up a beef or lamb pita, sit atop a grilled burger, or sit under a piece of grilled or roast fish (it's just divine with a good piece of salmon). I personally enjoy it with little lamb keftedes, succulent little meatballs tucked inside a fluffy piece of naan (pita will do, too), topped with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and a dash of hot sauce. The horseradish adds a hint of spice, but mostly provides a cool counter to the rich meatballs and spicy hot sauce. It's a great, easy spring/summer dinner, and a wonderful way to make use of this wonderful and undervalued root. Look for it now at your local market or farm stand--I promise it's worth giving a try.

Horseradish Cream 

2 cups reduced fat sour cream
3 Tbsp fresh horseradish, peeled and grated
1 lemon, zest and juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp fresh chopped dill
2 Tbsp fresh chopped mint
2/3 cup finely chopped cornichons or dill pickles
1 1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
salt to taste

Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl and stir well to combine. If the sauce is too thick, loosen it with 1/4 cup milk (this often depends on how juicy your lemon is). Salt to taste and serve alongside your favorite springtime roast, burger or lamb dish. Enjoy!


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