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When Horseradish Attacks

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Thanks to Alyssa Finn for this guest post. Alyssa is getting her Masters degree in Clinical Nutrition at NYU and is a Hazon volunteer on the New York Jewish Environmental Bike Ride Exec.

Yesterday, I came home after a long bike ride in the New York sunshine. On my plate for the evening was a pile of reading in preparation for my chemistry exam the next day. I stared at the pile of books and papers. I looked longingly at my kitchen, the primary source of my procrastination.

Then I remembered: horseradish!

A few weeks ago, I purchased a gnarled hunk of fresh horseradish with the intention of making it for Passover – but there it sat like a forgotten lump in my fridge. I’d also recently bought and cooked a bunch of beets – so I had every reason I needed to put studying off just a little longer and make red horseradish.

I consulted my copy of The New York Times Passover Cookbook (definitely a worthwhile book to have on your cookbook shelf!) for a horseradish recipe, to get a general idea of what was involved.

After a few moments with my vegetable peeler and a spin under the faucet, my horseradish root was ready for a shred in the Cuisinart. Through the plastic bowl, I could see little matchsticks of horseradish, sitting there and looking rather benign. I took off the lid to inspect and take a curious sniff. Mistake! All of a sudden the fumes invaded my nose and my eyes practically burst open with tears! If I desperately needed medical attention, I was screwed – I could barely speak.

I immediately threw the cover back on my food processor so I could prepare the other ingredients without falling over or disintegrating. Before opening up the lid again, I went to my kitchen drawer and pulled out my ski goggles (which, in retrospect, are not unlike the goggles I wear in chemistry lab). I usually reserve these goggles for chopping onions, but they seemed more than appropriate on this occasion.

I added the vinegar, honey, salt and beets and ground and ground as fast as I could. The mixture turned a sanguine red, but I swear that stuff remained more potent than most of the chemicals I use in my school experiments!

When it came time to taste my creation, I took a deep breath and dipped in a small spoon. But when the paste hit my lips, all I could taste was VERY STRONG HEAT! Acting fast, I threw the whole mess of horseradish into a Tupperware and hurled it into the fridge.

I’d created a tiny, red, fire-breathing monster. And it was sitting in my fridge, taunting me. Needless to say, I didn’t get much studying done that night. Instead, I spent hours washing my kitchen to get rid of the powerful horseradish smell. Still, like it or not, it seems the chemistry lab came to me.

The nutritionist in me wonders: what makes ground up horseradish so powerful? What sort of chemical compounds are released once it’s ground, and why do we react so strongly to it? And does the heat lessen with time in the fridge, or is it fated for the compost pile (in other words, will my horseradish ever be edible)?

Anyone with suggestions for these questions will be rewarded… with all the red horseradish you can eat! :) Or, you can just make your own – here’s the recipe:

Alyssa’s Murderous Maror
*Warning, this horseradish is only for the very brave. I highly recommend slipping on a pair of ski goggles before working with the horseradish.

1 lb horseradish, peeled and cut into rough chunks
2/3 cup white wine vinegar
2-4 Tbs white wine
1/4 cup honey (The Times‘ recipe called for sugar, but I substituted)
1/2 tsp salt
2 beets, peeled, cooked, and quartered

1. Fit your food processor with the shredding attachment and shred the horseradish, one chunk at a time.

2. In a separate bowl, combine the vinegar, white wine, and honey. Whisk to combine and set aside.

3. Switch to a metal blade on your food processor. Add the beets, one at a time, and pulse to combine. Stream in the wet mixture while pulsing, until you have a thick, red paste.

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13 Responses to “When Horseradish Attacks”

  1. Avigail Says:

    Hilarious! Alyssa, I’m so glad you posted this story. Thanks for sharing it with the wide wide world.

  2. Cheryl Says:

    I love this, and definitely can relate. My brother has horseradish plants/roots in his garden, and brings some for our Passover seder every year. We grind it up right before eating it – and see who can ingest the biggest horseradish & matzah sandwich and still function!

  3. Ryan Says:

    Beet horseradish is an Easter tradition in my Ukrainian family. Since we moved from Ohio, though, we have a hard time finding really potent root–the stuff that will clear your sinuses well into next year and make you wish you’d been born without eyes–so our last few batches have been a little disappointing. Sounds like yours turned out nice and stiff, though!

    To answer your question, when you open up a horseradish root its enzymes begin to break the flesh down, producing mustard oil (allyl isothiocyanate–a naturally occurring insecticide and topical anesthetic) that irritates the eyes and sinuses. Vinegar neutralizes this reaction, but timing is everything: the earlier you add the vinegar to the ground root, the milder it will be. Unfortunately, because you ground your root into a paste, it’s probably totally saturated with those hot oils. It may take months or years before your paste’s pungency reaches an edible level.

    In my family, instead of making a paste, we shred the horseradish and the beets and combine them to make more of a relish. If the horseradish is good, it’s nice and hot and putting your face in the pot will send you reeling–but it’s still divine on kielbasa or with a creamy cheese. Eating the horseradish with fatty foods will help to cool its organ-dissolving effects. :)

    Thanks for the recipe. Congratulations on making it through the process alive!

  4. Maxine Says:

    I make horseradish every year with my grandpa for Passover. It is definitely one of the most lethal concoctions my eyes have ever felt (sort of a strange sentence, but it’s true)! My grandpa makes the “russell” of beets and water a few weeks before so the beets ferment and get very sweet. But the grinding and straining of the horseradish is rough! I love your ski goggles suggestion and will most definitely come prepared next year!

  5. Subeast Says:

    Horseradish is a member of the mustard family (whose family includes its cousins, kale, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts and the common radish). The tang and aroma of fresh horseradish is almost non existent until it is grated or ground. During the grinding/slicing process the cells of the horseradish are crushed and volatile (hot) oils known as isothiocyanate are released. Vinegar, when added, can stop this reaction and it helps stabilizes the flavor.

    As processed horseradish ages, it browns and loses potency. You should keep even the unopened jars in the refrigerator to protect the freshness and bite. Horseradish that remains unrefrigerated gradually loses flavor.

  6. Kell Says:

    I’m in Australia, and we mix prepared horseradish cream and a little dab of sour cream with cooked whole baby beets to make a sweet and hot, and luridly fuscia-coloured salad.

    I love your recipe – can you tell me how, or with what this is eaten?

    Thanks.

  7. Mordechai Says:

    I grate my own, by hand, just before the seder. It is the last thing I do before we sit down to start. There have been years where my hands are ‘burned’ from the stuff. This year I had plastic gloves, but you can also use one of those heatproof oven mitts, it will also protect you from the grater. The goggles are a great idea. In factories they wear gas masks and chemical protection suits.

    As a rabbi I gotta chirp in – when you mix the horseradish with honey or vinegar it is no longer ideal for doing the mitzvah of eating maror. I usually recommend that people use romaine lettuce and wrap that around horseradish. You get the full experience, I think, since it is hard to imagine a bunch of Jews creating a festive dinner with burning hot maror. (the Torah tells us to eat it but probably is referring more to a bitter herb then a fire-y root.)

  8. Alyssa Says:

    Kell, as I have been raised, we eat horseradish once a year during Passover, either with gefilte fish or as a sandwich with matzah and charoseth. I suppose it could be good spead very thinly on toast as well.

  9. devadeva mirel Says:

    cooking horseradish breaks down the bite. you can throw your horseradish paste in a pan while you saute vegetables.

  10. Phyllis Landis Says:

    Alysa,

    Phyllis here from New Mexico. This is just wonderful. I loved reading all of it.
    I’m not sure whether I will do the horseradish thing but I will share it with frinds and family.

    What are your summer plans?

    How is Ian?

    Love,

    Phyllis

  11. Konnie Says:

    So funny. I was a city girl until we bought a house in the country with an already established garden (with a
    whole bed of horseradish) I had heard the rhyme about
    only picking it in months that end with an “r”. So
    one saturday nite in Novembe”r”, when I had the evening
    free I went out and dugg some up.

    I too was not prepared for the fumes! Needless to say
    my little girls were not thrilled to wind up sitting on
    the front steps wrapped in blankets in the cold until the house could air out!

    p.s. i saw your blog on the new tastespotting! i love that site!

  12. Beth Anne Says:

    OH MY GOODNESS!! I was innocently out looking for recipes to use horseradish in when I came across this post. I rencently made fresh horseradish for the first time and reading this post just sent me into obnoxiously loud hysterical laughter, thinking back to my OWN horseradish experiment. I had the same reaction at the moment that I uncovered the food processor…. and posted about it in a similar way on my own blog. I’m glad I’m not the only one it reached out and attacked! Thanks for a great laugh on a friday afternoon.

  13. Thomasena Dropinski Says:

    Hi, great page however there is a issue whereby on occassion I get sent back to the root page when I view different topics within your website.

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