Lettuce Eat Local
Oh this isn’t too bad, I thought.
I had just opened the lid of my blender after grating up a big old root of fresh horseradish. I had always heard it’s better to process horseradish in an area with proper ventilation — out on the porch, with the windows open, etc — in order to survive its pungency. But it was cold outside, and it was only one root, and grating would just take a jiffy in my blender, so the reasons piled up for me to take the risk.
My repentance might not have come with sackcloth and ashes, but it did come with tears streaming down my face. Just like it takes a second or two after eating horseradish for it to sneak up and punch you in the face, apparently the compounds in the air also take a moment to hit. And boy, do they hit. Or rather, wallop.
Like the genius I am, I had kept inching my face closer to the container of just-grated horseradish; it just looked so innocent and I wasn’t smelling anything much. Then I reeled back as the burn careened into my face, searing my eyes and rushing through my nose. It was like I had released a pack of wolves, or in our neck of the woods, a herd of antsy heifers, and the horseradish galloped around the kitchen. The tears would stop for a moment, and then a fresh wave would hit, and they’d start all over again.
Then, almost as quickly as it came, it left. Again like when ingesting the stuff, when horseradish wreaks havoc on your sinuses and disappears in a breath, the volatility in the air was gone. If I got too close to the jars I had desperately packed the grated bits into, I could smell it, but no longer did I have to involuntarily weep about its presence.
This does all seem to beg the question, why was I voluntarily in the presence of such a painful ingredient in the first place? You know why: because it hurts so good! The main chemical irritant in horseradish triggers a nerve response in the same receptors on the same cells as tear gas does…but it does so in such a pleasant way. The reason it burns up your nose and then leaves, unlike the lasting burn of chili peppers on your tongue, is that horseradish’s spiciness chemical is released as a vapor. That chemical is found in more brassica family plants (think of that unique sulfurous burn of turnips, mustard, and other radishes), and is similar to the one in onions that makes us cry, too.
That compound is water soluble, which is why all the recipes also note that horseradish is the most pungent (read: assaultive) immediately upon being grated. Adding vinegar and salt to the processed root turns it into “prepared” horseradish, and it’s also where you get to try and control the level of fire. Adding the vinegar right away tones down the heat, whereas waiting a few minutes lets the compound build up intensity before being stabilized with the acid. Any grated horseradish, however, will lose its potency over time, which is why some people recommend shredding off only what you want to use right away.
That sounds like a good idea, since I love the fresh burn zipping up my nostrils, and I love horseradish with potency. But I also can’t head into 2024 crying horseradish tears all the time, so this sobbing-once-for-all method will work grate for me (pun intended). Here’s to a happy New Year with plenty of zippiness!
Fresh Horseradish Cream Sauce
I don’t know if horseradish is supposed to bring good luck to the new year, but it definitely brings flavor, and that’s more than enough luckiness for me. You might be surprised how easy it is to locate horseradish roots, especially this time of year since it’s harvested in late fall. And it’s also surprisingly easy to make your own prepared horseradish — after you’ve mopped up all the tears you’ll cry, of course.
Prep tips: the cream sauce totally has to be to taste; one of the recipes I looked at said ½ teaspoon of grated horseradish per 1 cup sour cream and one said ¼ cup…so be your own judge as you take your life and nostrils in your hands.
½ pound horseradish root, peeled and cut into chunks
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup white vinegar
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
Grate the horseradish in a food processor or by hand. Mix with salt and vinegar, either right away for milder or after a few minutes for hotter, and pack into a pint jar (adding more vinegar if it seems dry). Separately, mix the sour cream and mustard, and add in however much horseradish you want. Salt to taste, and use with beef, sandwiches, roasted veg, whatever.