The bitter herbs are also known as "marror" (derived from the Hebrew word for "bitter") and they represent the bitterness of the slavery the Jews endured in Egypt. In addition to this heavy bit of symbolism, horseradish also tastes delicious on matzoh with a little charoset spread on it to add some sweetness to its bite.
I'd heard that horseradish sauce is pretty easy to make so I was not surprised by the scores of simple recipes that came up when I googled "make your own horseradish." But I was surprised by the sheer number of strongly-worded WARNINGS in all the recipes! It seems that horseradish's characteristic bite is sharpest when the oils in the root are first exposed to air. So potent are these oils that all the recipes I read suggested (in no uncertain terms):
a) preparing the root outdoors,
b) wearing gloves and protective eye wear, and
c) doing anything and everything you can to avoid touching your eyes after handling the stuff.
This actually sounded kinda fun to me so I soldiered on. Horseradish root is available all year round so I figured I could find some at one of our local produce stores. Although I was extremely underwhelmed by the offerings at Monterey Market (the roots looked like tiny, shrivelled, moldy parsnips) I found a big, fresh-looking root without any blemishes or mold at our local supermarket.
On a sunny afternoon, I gathered everything I would need - gloves, sunglasses, apron, cuisinart, extension cord (for plugging the cuisinart in outside), compost bucket (for the horseradish root peels), spatula, vegetable peeler, knife, rubber spatula, measuring spoon, measuring cup, white vinegar, salt, ice cold water, the washed horseradish root, and two glass jars for storing the final product - and headed for our back deck. Here is a photo of my little set up.
I began by donning my gloves and sunglasses and peeling the horseradish root down to its creamy white interior and removing any blemishes. The next step was to cut the peeled root into cubes to make it more manageable for the cuisinart's blades to chop.
I was now ready to begin the grinding. Before I dumped the cubed root into the bowl of the cuisinart, I poured a little bit of the ice water into the bottom. Then I added the root, snapped the top into place and hit the "on" button.
I was immediately rewarded with a big splash of grated horseradish in the face (via that little tube in the top of the cuisinart) and was very thankful for my sunglasses. Waves of hot horseradish scent radiated from the spinning blades making me glad I had chosen to do this out of doors (thank you again, Internet warnings.) After 20-30 seconds, the cubes of hard root had become a smooth white sauce. I opened the top to push down any stray chunks that had escaped the blades with the rubber spatula and blended another 10 seconds or so to ensure an even consistency.
Now it was time to add the vinegar and salt. Vinegar has a neutralizing effect on the oils that give horseradish its heat. Consequently, adding vinegar earlier in the process will prevent the horseradish from reaching its peak heat. Or, if you want your horseradish to be as hot as possible, wait three minutes after you've finished the blending and then add the vinegar. Since I was shooting for only medium "hotness" in this batch of horseradish, I added the white vinegar and salt right away. Then I blended the mixture for another 5 or so seconds to combine evenly.
At this point, the only thing left to do was taste it and make sure it was fit for human consumption. I reached in and scooped out a dollop on a spoon (I found myself blowing on the spoon before I put it in my mouth in an unconscious attempt to "cool" it down) and was rewarded with a mouthful of pungent flavor - fresh, spicy, and just a tiny bit sweet. It was damn good horseradish!!!
I decided to spoon it into the two jars outside, in the hopes of confining most of the mess I was creating to our deck. The piece of root I'd bought had made two full jars of horseradish. I gave them a wipedown inside, then placed them in the fridge. Ironically, horseradish must be kept cold in order to preserve its heat. It will keep well in the fridge for about 4-6 weeks or in the freezer for 6 months or more. If you want to give it a try, the recipe is below. Happy Pesach to all!
Fresh Horseradish Sauce
* Fresh horseradish root (look for a firm, unblemished root - the whiter it looks inside, the fresher it is)
* White vinegar
* Ice water
1. Gather all your protective gear, cooking implements and ingredients together and bring them all to the outdoor location of your choice (you'll need an outlet and a table.) It's best to have everything in place before you get started so you don't have to run back and forth and take the gloves on and off, etc.
2. Cut the ends off the horseradish root and peel it (the interior should be a creamy white) and then cut it into cubes that will be a manageable size for your blender or cuisinart.
3. Pour 1/4 cup of the ice water into your blender or cuisinart (if you're using a blender, it should be enough to just cover the blades) and dump the horseradish cubes in after it.
4. Blend it for 25-30 seconds or until it is the consistency of the prepared horseradish you'd buy at the store. If your blender or cuisinart is having trouble, you can add a bit more water. Stop blending to shove any stray, unblended chunks down into the bowl and blend until they've been incorporated.
5. Depending on how hot you want the horseradish you can either add the vinegar and salt now or wait a few minutes to add it. Add 2-3 tablespoons of white vinegar and a half teaspoon of salt for each cup of ground horseradish root. Then blend a few seconds to combine thoroughly.
6. Taste (try a small amount as it may be very spicy!) the sauce to see if you need to adjust anything (more vinegar, more salt, etc.) If you're satisfied, you can jar it up now. If your sauce seems too liquidy, you can drain off some of the water. Then spoon the sauce into glass jars with airtight lids and place them in the refrigerator. If you want to freeze the sauce, use a plastic container with an airtight lid. It will keep well in the fridge for about 4-6 weeks or in the freezer for 6 months or more.
* Use Kosher ingredients if you're making this for a Passover seder. I'd also recommend trying to buy organic ingredients if you can find them.
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